Eccentrically Meta Canaries Wildly Uneven
Engaged Brooklyn couple Barri (Sophia Takal) and Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) live in a nice apartment complex with spirited roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat). The latter works with his ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse), now an out and proud lesbian, and even with that being so his currently unemployed fiancé isn’t as okay with it all as she states. She’s equally, and more vocally, upset about his penchant for hanging out with building owner Damien (Jason Ritter) during the guy’s all-night poker parties, his apparent fondness for alcohol not helping on that front, either.
But things don’t get stressful between the two until the kindly old woman living in the rent-controlled apartment near them dies of an apparent heart attack. That’s enough for Noah, what things look like are usually what they are, so if the reports say a heart attack than it must have been a heart attack. Barri, however, refuses to follow the party line. She thinks there’s been foul play, and with Jean urging her on she transforms into an amateur Nancy Drew and begins following the woman’s son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) certain he’s the key to cracking the case.
Like some weird combination of a “Saturday Night Live” skit, HBO’s “Girls,” cult favorite “Portlandia,” David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the 1934 classic The Thin Man, make no mistake, Wild Canaries is in no way anywhere as serious as you might initially believe. It’s a modern day relationship comedy crossed with the demented leanings of a playfully eccentric Coen brother’s satire, Barri and Noah at the center while everyone else is there to add screwball zaniness to an already absurdist affair.
The movie, produced by Takal, written and directed by her real life husband Levine, is unquestionably ambitious, skewering itself at every turn while also paying homage to many of the more paranoid and schizophrenic classics of the genre (films like The Parallax View, Charade, Shadow of a Doubt and The Marathon Man come to mind). It’s clear the filmmaking team is having a blast, a party the entire cast seems gleefully willing to be a part of, everyone throwing themselves into it all with genuine exuberance playing things straight even when the motion picture itself is brazenly winking at the audience.
For my part, I can’t say I was as impressed as others seem to be. While the film has met with strong reviews and terrific buzz since debuting at last year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin (the 2015 version just got rolling over the weekend), personally Wild Canaries annoyed me more than it did anything else. I didn’t like spending time with Barri and Noah, didn’t care if they were able to put the pieces of this maybe-it-really-was-murder mystery together or not. They bickered and bantered back and forth in ways that, while believable, while authentic, drove me up the wall, their dryly acerbic pitter-patter not as interesting, witty or as funny as I’m sure it was meant to be.
Not that Levine’s command of this material is not impressive. It is. The filmmaker shows a deft ability to transition between Woody Allen-style bits of interpersonal comedy to crazed sequences of mayhem and malfeasance that’s surprisingly engaging, suspense mixing with laughter with an easy camaraderie that’s endearing. My favorite bit involved Barri and Noah surveilling a potential suspect having to unexpectedly duck out of sight with the only problem being one of them having a serious neck injury keeping them from sudden, jerky movements. It’s a bit of visual comedy that got me giggle madly yet a scene that still burst with tension, making it a blink and you’d miss it high-point I categorically adored.
Problem is, I just didn’t care about anything that was going on or how it was all going to turn out. I didn’t like spending time with Barri and Noah, listening to them whine back and forth at one another not a thing I found enjoyable. They drove me up a wall, as did a great deal of the interactions they were having with their friends, everyone existing in the arch, highly meta alternate, somewhat bourgeois universe I didn’t want to be a part of. I was over all of it early on, and by the time heads were rolling and people were changing identities faster than a Scooby-Doo villain my interest in how it was all going to be resolved wasn’t as strong as I had hoped it would be.
There is a lot to like about Wild Canaries, not least of which is Shawkat’s scene-stealing supporting turn and Michael Montes’ (Ping Pong Summer) glorious, anachronistically retro score, and I do feel like Levine’s directorial chops are categorically, and in some ways defiantly, impressive. But because a lot of the humor struck me cold, considering I found Barri and Noah nincompoops I couldn’t tolerate, the movie didn’t do it for me, and in the end I find it to be an impressively crafted, if still empty, calling card for the filmmakers and little, if anything, else.
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)