Imagine, for a moment, that Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery has been remade with polysexual thirtysomethings. You’re now a little closer to grasping the genre-bending appeal of Wild Canaries. Judging from pedigree and cultural backdrop alone, one might preemptively slap the film with the dreaded “M” word. After all, it stars Sophia Takal, a once and probably future colleague of Joe Swanberg, and has been written and directed by its co-lead, Lawrence Michael Levine, who made the definitively Mumblecore Gabi On The Roof In July. The setting is gentrified New York. The problems are hashtag First World. Nonetheless, this exuberant indie lark has more in common with old screwball comedies than most of the SXSW fare it superficially recalls. Early telltale signs of its throwback charm arrive in the form of an opening iris shot, a stylishly retro credits sequence (featuring falling money, guns, and names), and a jaunty score by Michael Montes that sounds repurposed from some kicky 1960s thriller.
The fun begins almost immediately, with the domestic discord of engaged Brooklyn couple Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine). She’s a spirited flibbertigibbet prone to get-rich-quick schemes, the latest of which involves purchasing and restoring an abandoned resort. He’s an incorrigible crank who can’t work his smartphone and sneaks off in the middle of the night to play poker with his landlord (Jason Ritter), a pastime that speaks to a nostalgia for the single life. Both are clearly suffering from some pre-wedding jitters, and their anxiety is compounded by the sudden death of their elderly neighbor. While Noah reasonably blames natural causes, Barri suspects foul play—itself a reasonable theory, as the old woman’s cash-strapped son is played by shifty, eccentric character actor Kevin Corrigan.
“We’ve been watching this Hitchcock retrospective,” Noah reminds some mutual friends when Barri floats her murder theory. And like the amateur sleuth, Wild Canaries takes its cues from classic corkers, offering scenes of characters breaking into apartments in search of incriminating evidence and tailing suspects on foot and by car. (There’s a very amusing moment in which Barri discovers that Corrigan’s character, who she’s been spying on from behind trees and other natural barriers, is himself sneaking around to catch someone in the act.) Boxing in this spritely whodunit is a kind of sexually fluid love square. Barri’s partner in crime-investigation is the couple’s lesbian roommate, Jean (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), who’d clearly like to play Nora to her Nick. Meanwhile, Noah flirts with his co-worker and ex-girlfriend, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who now also prefers the company of women. They all seem in constant danger of falling in love with each other; part of the pleasure of the film lies in its vision of a New York dating scene indifferent to gender.
As with a lot of murder mysteries, Wild Canaries depends on an occasional suspension of disbelief: Characters are frequently seen crawling around under tables in close to plain sight, going miraculously unseen and unheard by those they’re hiding from. But that’s mainly because Levine treats his complicated detective-fiction scenario less than seriously; it’s a genre sandbox, a play space where he can unleash his capering neurotics. The results are consistently delightful: Takal exhibits a gift for madcap verbal and physical comedy, while Levine tethers himself to a grand tradition of beaten-and-bruised noir heroes, his Noah taking a constant licking even as he resists involving himself in the central mystery. (The actor-filmmaker spends much of the film’s second half in a neck brace, which leads to a hilarious and suspenseful scene of Noah using a car’s automatic chair incline to slowly dip out of sight, as his injury prevents him from simply ducking for cover.) At its core, Wild Canaries is a reminder that relationships require a sense of adventure, and maybe a little mystery, to keep the magic alive. Indie comedies, as the film proves, benefit from the same.
Wild Canaries arrives on VOD and in select theaters February 25.