*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
The opening two scenes of Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries set the absurdist tone for the wry suspense and hilarity to come. In the first, a glove-clad man mysteriously enters the apartment of an old lady and eerily caresses her face; the setting portends violence, only for the woman to wake up and smile at his familiar face, which remains hidden to us. In the following scene, Noah (Levine) enters his own apartment, calling for his fiancée, Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s real-life partner) without a response. The setting again suggests a bloody discovery just around the corner until the fiancée jumps out and yells “I got you” repeatedly. This dichotomy between mystery and slapstick comedy pervades the Brooklyn-based hipster neo-noir.
Although the young and engaged Barri and Noah put a ring on it, they lack the financial means or the emotional will to get married, and still share an apartment with Jean (Alia Shawkat), their lesbian friend. Barri is jobless and Noah is a filmmaker with a never-ending series of rejected pitches. He works closely with his former girlfriend, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who left him for another woman, and is now being set up with Jean by Barri and Noah. Their neighbor, Sylvia (Marylouise Burke), is an old lady whose age—at least 80—is a matter of dispute, a disagreement that becomes rather significant after she’s found dead in her apartment. When her son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), begins to act strangely, Barri becomes suspicious of foul play, leading to a rapid conversation with Jean, who concocts various scenarios for his possible motives. Noah is unimpressed, but the plot only thickens further when Damien (Jason Ritter), the womanizing artist who owns their building, gets involved. He thereby becomes a secondary suspect to Jean and Barri and the object of Anthony’s separate photographic investigation.
All of this mania and exposition represents the breakneck pace with which Wild Canaries throws itself and its ensemble back and forth. On occasion, the characters must pause and retrace their steps verbally to reconfigure their pursuits. Yet, written with sharp-tongued humor within a very fluid structure, Wild Canaries sweeps the audience up in the whirlwind without becoming puzzling with the rapid progression of the plot. Levine and editor Sofi Marshall inject the film with such levity and pep that even the most mundane interactions burst with pizzazz. Within this whodunit narrative, individual scenes are at once comic and suspenseful, stretching out tense hide-and-seek sequences without losing their spark. A long scene with Barri and Noah hiding from Damien’s sight in his studio is a particular standout. It maintains tension at the prospect of Damien finding his followers, but takes maximum leverage from ridiculous props like prosthetic body parts.
Levine creatively uses a vast arsenal of comic tools—from cartoonish sound effects to slow-motion dance sequences—that in lesser hands would have been generic, or become irritating by repetition. In Wild Canaries, these are comic instruments that keep riffing on funnier tunes. For example, Noah’s inability to use a smartphone or his physical restraint due to his neck brace are reintroduced several times, but so precisely that one forgets the gag was already shown. But the brilliance of this film arguably hinges on two elements: its wildly inventive use of music and its remarkable ensemble. Alia Shawkat reminds us what an affecting, genuine performer she is and Kevin Corrigan is superb as the awkward, twitchy Anthony. The stars of the show, however, are Levine and Takal, whose performances not only perfect the comic tempo, but also suggest that their real-life relationship has influenced every frustrated argument and passionate kiss seen in the film. Their effortless chemistry in this screwball throwback is reminiscent of classic screen couples such as William Powell and Myrna Loy. Like The Thin Man, Wild Canaries leaves us impatiently waiting for the couple’s next adventure.