Murder She Said
By Jordan Cronk
Dir. Lawrence Michael Levine, U.S., Sundance Selects
Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries opens with an iris effect, a technique dating back to the silent and early Hollywood eras, often used to announce, punctuate, or bookend scenes. What at first blush appears an anachronistic visual flourish, however, in fact announces a story operating in a state of hyper-cinematic reality. In short order we’ll sample a variety of other sight gags, exaggerated music cues, and situational comedy configurations confirming the director’s allegiance to cinema’s farcical and fantastical capacities. Levine, emblematic of an exciting new generation of low-budget New York filmmakers, appears uncommonly attuned to the tenets and traditions of a bygone age of comedic storytelling, a stylistic philosophy rooted in Frank Capra and Preston Sturges yet inherited from such descendants as Blake Edwards and Woody Allen. In the spirit of its forebears, Wild Canaries is gleefully antiquated, a fully dedicated neo-screwball effort as inventively constructed and effervescently acted as any modern genre exercise.
Starring the director and his wife, Sofia Takal (herself a filmmaker), as an unmarried, not entirely satisfied young couple who stumble upon a potential murder plot within the confines of their own apartment building, Wild Canaries seems to propose a number of narrative avenues in its opening moments before effectively traversing them all. Mixing elements of screwball comedy, murder mystery, detective drama, and romantic farce, Levine’s referential spin on tried-and-true genre tropes at times appears to leave no familiar tone or trait untapped. Yet with his third feature the Brooklyn-based Levine has shrewdly negotiated the precarious balance between simply capitalizing on established methods and recalibrating them as tools of reflexive, post-millennial storytelling. Indeed, the film’s playful artifice and heightened self-awareness seem as much byproducts of its creative development within the burgeoning New York indie scene as they do means toward expanding what must appear at times the suffocating confines (and conceptions) of a self-sustaining cinematic culture.
Like many a golden-age Hollywood entertainment, Wild Canaries weaves a convoluted yarn. Living in middle class Brooklyn, Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) seem at first blush ordinary, well-to-do lovers. But when their elderly but not exactly ailing downstairs neighbor Sylvia (Marylouise Burke) unexpectedly drops dead, Barri begins to suspect foul play. Sylvia’s grandson, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), appears more nervous than broken up about her passing, conveniently selling off her belongings as his home in Florida threatens to be foreclosed upon. Meanwhile, evidence that their hard-partying, gambling landlord Damien (Jason Ritter) may be in financial trouble of his own only deepens Barri’s many overlapping conspiracy theories. Perturbed by her tenacity, and further spurred on by the sexual tension between Barri and their third-wheel roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat), Noah begins to drink and fixate on past obsessions, including his own unrequited feelings for his ex-girlfriend/currently lesbian coworker Eleanor (Annie Parisse), actions we quickly gather as evidence of buried resentment hindering Barri and Noah from advancing their relationship.
The film’s labyrinthine plotting is pleasingly tempered by the small but lively ensemble of actors, all of whom indulge the comedic allowances of Levine’s caricatures by embracing their divergent personas. Ritter and Corrigan make for a droll, dissimilar pair of would-be murderers, the former boisterous and unhinged, the latter meek yet coldly creepy. A similar juxtaposition plays out in the characters of Parisse and Shawkat, seductive sirens luring their friends into compromising situations, with Eleanor proving as assertive and sexual as Jean is self-conscious and frustrated. But the energy of the film radiates from the chemistry between Levine and Takal. As a precocious amateur sleuth, Barri is keen and resourceful; as a girlfriend, she’s wide-eyed yet weak-willed, unemployed but with grand ambitions of restoring a rundown resort in the Catskills. Noah, whose own business is approaching dire straits, is only slightly better off—and if anything is more morally dubious. It’s inconceivable at times how these two got together, let alone how they’ve stayed together long enough to now share an apartment (albeit with a roommate). But it’s to Takal and Levine’s credit that even as their characters bicker—and bicker they do, oftentimes loudly—and subconsciously backstab one another, never do their actions suggest malicious intent nor does their emotional or financial dependence ever feel exploitative of one another. Barri continually forgives Noah’s binge drinking just as Noah time and again saves Barri from potentially dangerous situations, and while the fate of their relationship may not be a predicament as grave as the one they’ve happened upon, their dynamic rapport suggests it’s a mystery equally worth solving.
Levine augments the performances of his actors with a number of stylistic accents, pushing the vibrancy of the film ever higher in the process. The music, by Michael Montes, is a consistent source of exhilaration. Here, Levine further underscores his theatrical streak, summoning the muscle of Montes’s compositions at conveniently tense junctures, stamping each close call, jump scare, and bait-and-switch with exaggerated awareness. Elsewhere, the score proves appropriately whimsical, accompanying Barri with tip-toeing keys and jazzy percussion as she chases clues and dodges danger, pursuing the truth in the face of increasing peril for her and Noah’s friends. Levine and editor Sofi Marshall cut the action into modest, tightly wound set pieces, eliciting visual humor from reaction shots and an anxious momentum via cleverly constructed montage. Seemingly minor formal flourishes such as these help put over much of the film’s broad humor. One of the best ongoing jokes in the film concerns Noah and the succession of injuries brought on by his own stupidity. By the end of the film he’s sporting a black eye and a white neck brace, gingerly navigating traffic in a high-speed chase before stiffly evading gunfire as he flees on foot. With few exceptions, the aesthetic approach of the film complements the physicality of the actors’ performances.
The lineage Wild Canaries aims to join is vast though admittedly not terribly au courant. The quick-witted dialogue and delivery is certainly in keeping with trends one might associate with the Brooklyn independent community, but the film’s fanciful ideals and economical means of expressing such romantic notions feel unique for a contemporary American filmmaker. While a line can easily drawn from The Thin Man (1934) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), to The Trouble With Harry (1955) and Murder By Death (1976), to, most obviously, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), little in today’s cinematic landscape embodies a similar sense of unencumbered fantasy and pleasure in the possibilities of its own internal logic. (Indeed, an understandable if misleading amount of critical comparisons of the film to Aaron Katz’s similar-in-outline Cold Weather , a work of a very different disposition, only furthers the divide.) Like their characters, Levine and Takal have pursued a fundamentally stimulating prospect with Wild Canaries. That the result is so wholly delightful is proof of both their commitment to the material and to the continued creative vitality of age-old conceits.