This hipster whodunit is actually a relationship comedy with heart.
With its peep-hole iris shots, funky opening credits complete with Bond-esque graphics, including handguns and money falling, not to mention its soundtrack of hi-hat cymbals, flirty flute, and plenty of bass line, Wild Canaries isn’t an altogether complicated whodunit, but it’s bursting with charisma. Getting the obvious allusions out of the way, Columbo and Woody Allen, Wild Canaries manages to be an engaging mystery even while its characters wade through their growing neuroses and discontent. If director, writer, and star Lawrence Michael Levine manages to misstep anywhere it’s in the loss of momentum as the characters play more and more into expectations. Tacking on a screwball and self-aware ending with plenty of heart makes up for these minor shortcomings almost in full, with only a few questions remaining.
The mystery is this: newly engaged couple Barri (Sophia Takal) and Noah (Levine) live in a typical NYC walk-up and are relatively close with their neighbors, one being their gambling, drinking, partying artist landlord Damien (Jason Ritter) and another being elderly rent-controlled Sylvia. Barri walks into Sylvia’s apartment one day to find the woman dead on the floor. There is no sign of foul play, no real reason to suspect anything fishy happening, except that Sylvia’s son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) immediately starts selling off her furniture.
Barrie is a whimsical, intrepid type, devising a million dollar business plan with her best friend and roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat) while currently unemployed. Her imaginative brain almost immediately suspects Anthony of foul play. Noah is beyond skeptical, annoyed even at Barri’s rising insistence. After breaking into his apartment and finding both a life insurance policy document and a foreclosure notice on one of his properties in Florida, Barri has all the motive she needs to don a trench coat, oversized glasses and a floppy hat to start following Anthony around. Enabled by Jean, the two stake him out, while Noah, who is annoyed by this distraction for Barri’s attention and by the increased closeness between Jean and Barri starts to sidle up to his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse). Strange behavior on both Barri and Noah’s account considering both women are gay.
Things twist further when Barri and Jean discover Anthony is doing his own stalking, following Damien around as he argues with his ex-wife. As Barri’s theories on how everyone is involved in the conspiracy of Sylvia’s death grow, the crack in her and Noah’s relationship also widens. Success in her and Jean’s business endeavors leads to further closeness between them while Noah invites Eleanor to move into their apartment while in the midst of a break-up.
Filled with comical moments of amateur sleuthing, and the growing pain in Noah’s neck immobilizing him more and more simultaneously making him a hilarious sidekick in Barri’s efforts and providing an interesting metaphor in the progression of their relationship. The story unravels easily enough, each new layer getting intriguingly more intricate, but not nearly as convoluted as even an episode of Scooby-Doo. Meanwhile, the characters begin to act a little too accordingly and by the time they reach the end it seems unclear who we ought to be rooting for and where these people ought to end up. Luckily Levine brings it back together recognizing the emotional surge of an action-filled payoff.
Wild Canaries is filled to the brim with a retro sense of style and format, sensibilities perfectly at home with the age and hipster lifestyles of its characters. The film’s music is just slightly too noticeable, an artistic choice that plays on the hyperbolic imagination of Barri while adding tension where there isn’t anything visibly provoking happening. It’s fun, but could potentially turn off some viewers unable to grapple with the levels of ridiculousness.
Those able to forget about more modern plugged-in Sherlock-esque influences will appreciate the whimsy and character-driven plot. But any needing even the slightest bit more logic in how Barri and Noah fit together as a couple may find their constant fighting hard to swallow. Not to mention their incompetencies in snooping and generally impulsive tendencies. Takal plays Barri with a believable cuteness but she can’t quite pull-off Barri’s lacking motivations which seem to be entirely around “being a good person.”
As a relationship drama set in the midst of a throwback genre-film, Wild Canaries innovates. As a murder mystery, it’s fun, though not thrilling. Mostly Wild Canaries is entertaining, and because of its relationship distractions, the mystery doesn’t need to be especially clever, and because of the mystery the relationships don’t all scream for tons of realistic sense. Buying in and letting go is the best way to appreciate Wild Canaries. And if you can, you’ll find an indie darling that still manages to pack in more gumption in its dual themes than most single-sided indie films these days.