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The compelling screwball tale of Wild Canaries

A still from Wild Canaries.

Two types of movies that were once ubiquitous in American cinema are becoming increasingly difficult to find in theaters these days: screwball comedies and really good Woody Allen pictures. Allen's late-career work is rarely terrible but it's not exactly Annie Hall caliber. As for screwball comedies, they went the way of the zoot suit. Thankfully we've got indie up-and-comer Lawrence Michael Levine to try and fill that void with Wild Canaries, a sharply written lark of a movie that feels like a 21st century Brooklyn spin on the beloved Thin Man series of the '30s and '40s with a strong element of Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery stirred in for good measure. It's a movie that's bound to irritate some viewers with its hipster milieu, lily-white and gentrified characters complete with (mostly) first-world problems, and general air of Mumblecore archness. It's all a bit Lena-Dunham-meets-vintage-murder-mysteries in a movie that's every bit as cutesy and precious as its title but somehow that's all okay. Once you accept that you're not supposed to take any of this remotely seriously, it all becomes absurdly entertaining and even oddly compelling.

Well before we see our first corpse, the film's pitch is already dialed up to 11 via the domestic strife of our protagonists, engaged 30-something Brooklyn couple Noah (Levine) and Barri (Sophia Takal) who alternate continually between being lovable and being unbearable. We immediately sense that maybe the two aren't right for each other and are, on some level, cognizant of that fact, testing each other's boundaries with their increasingly frequent passive-aggressive exchanges. She's a flighty and perennially underemployed type whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to renovate and reopen a defunct holiday resort with the help of Jean (Alia Shawkat), their lesbian subletter who happens to be in love with her. Noah is a grumpy misanthrope, an unapologetic luddite, a bit of an asshole and, hilariously, still somewhat attached to his business partner and ex-girlfriend who also happens to be a lesbian. This polysexual dynamic typical of Brooklyn hipster culture is mined for all its story potential and throws a spanner or two into the generally staid works of your average old-school murder mysteries and Woody-Allen-esque urbanite relationship dramas.

It’s all a bit Lena-Dunham-meets-vintage-murder-mysteries in a movie that’s every bit as cutesy and precious as its title but somehow that’s all okay. Once you accept that you’re not supposed to take any of this remotely seriously, it all becomes absurdly entertaining and even oddly compelling.

And the mystery is just that: old-school and straight out of Hitchcock, albeit featuring hipster detectives and suspects. There are likely culprits and unlikely culprits but nearly every character is just off-putting enough to qualify as guilty. Also, as in more than one Hitchcock film, it's not apparent at first whether the death in question was even a murder. In this case, it's the sudden expiry of an elderly neighbor that sets the couple's overactive imaginations rolling. Her creepy cash-strapped son (a morose, off-kilter Kevin Corrigan) doesn't do their paranoia any favors. Soon enough, the pair dive headfirst into amateur detective mode, giving rise to inspired comic setpieces involving them shadowing people and breaking into seemingly empty flats only to have the inhabitants unexpectedly reappear. And, all the while, they're bickering as much as they're detecting.

Takal and Levine, married in real life, riff flawlessly off of each other, turning in a pair of nuanced and believable performances. We buy their connection but we also believe they're bad for each other, at least at first. The perverse joke behind the whole affair is that it takes involvement in violent crime to get them to look beyond the insides of their own neurotic minds; it's murder investigation as couples therapy. Ultimately, said investigation and all its attendant dangers end up being easier to deal with than relationship woes. The murder mystery provides a retro (as suitable for the film's demographic) genre space for the filmmakers to dig into that lasting preoccupation of the New York indie scene: millennial love and its struggle to bloom out of the acrid soil of generational solipsism, economic devastation and perpetual instability. Unlike many of his peers, however, Levine understands that even an earnest consideration of these dynamics can benefit from the screwball spark of adventure, from 21st century versions of Myrna Loy and William Powell running around taking verbal potshots at each other while nefarious criminals take potshots at them. There's many a twee relationship movie that could use a corpse or two to liven up the proceedings. Levine is way ahead of the curve.

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