Alia Shawkat film

Wild Canaries Review: One Hat Fits, Another Not So Much

Friday, April 03, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Wild Canaries

Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Jason Ritter
Rating: Three and a Half Stars out of Five

Yesterday I was reminded of a fun bit of film history. Woody Allen's Oscar-winning romantic comedy, Annie Hall, was originally a four-and-a-half-hour-long epic called Anhedonia, featured a murder mystery, and was generally a dour affair that somehow became a relatively sunny (though bittersweet) classic. This dovetailed nicely with my viewing of Lawrence Michael Levine's Wild Canaries, now available on demand.

Levine does something similar with his movie to what Allen aimed for in the original Annie Hall cut. He creates a relationship drama clearly inspired by Allen's 1980s heyday but attempts to balance it with a wacky murder mystery investigation by amateur sleuths. Sophia Takal is Barri, a thirtyish aspiring resort owner-operator struggling with a bout of unemployment while living with her fiance, Noah (Levine, again recalling Allen). She's too excited about every idea that pops in her head to stick with anything and he's a depressed, hard-drinking jerk most of the time, pushing her away while he pines for his coworker and former girlfriend/theoretically now-out-of-reach lesbian, Eleanor (Parisse). Complicating this tenuous relationship is Barri and Noah's roommate, Jean (Shawkat), who is on the cusp of going into business – and possibly more if her crush is to be believed – with Barri.

Standard fare for modern indie dramedies, right? Yes, exactly. Everything about this section of the movie is shot in the naturalistic mumblecore style, with a lot of handheld cameras, lighting that recalls cigarette stains on wallpaper, and some editing that is loose but not choppy. It doesn't look bad, per sé, and this technique is a product of the budgetary restrictions, but it's not pushing any envelopes, either. The same goes for the interactions between these characters. They're well drawn, distinct from each other in written and spoken voice, and their motivations are all fairly clear to the audience if not the characters themselves. But it essentially boils down to crisscross of love triangles. He wants her, she wants her, jealousies lead to feelings of being used, nobody communicates this properly for fear of offending each other and in turn their pettiness is more offensive than their original feelings actually are. There's something there, but something that has been done better – and wittier – before.

But then an old lady downstairs drops dead and this work done to build these characters begins to pop in fun, silly ways.

In her unemployed boredom, Barri starts making connections. Sure, she had befriended the old lady and gave her lessons on things like chess, but that's not why she starts going down the wormhole of nonprofessional gumshoe work. Despite all the obviousness of an 80-something woman dying being a fact of life, Barri starts looking into estates and foreclosures and a son (Kevin Corrigan) who can't make good eulogies. She does this while breaking and entering apartments without a clue in her head about how any of this stuff works. So she enlists Jean. They try to convince Noah that something is fishy, he keeps pointing out the logical thing to do is to drop it and leave him alone to pine for his crush, thank you very much.

What Levine does during these breaks into detective mode is a wry wink to the audience. He uses power zooms, iris shots, and more controlled bits of camerawork to indicate there's an investigation afoot! Barri and Jean skulk around like Elmer Fudd in the fowest looking fow wabbits, their heads popping around trees, although the rest of their bodies aren't particularly hidden from view, either. Noah's insecurities, lack of observational skills, and ailments – he spends half the movie in a neck brace, mostly for the exaggerated comic effect – begin to pay off one by one as they discover the heinous beginnings of their adventure.

For all the solid payoff, it still struggles to be a complete movie. Those character relationships are still a bit too familiar, the tone of their interactions pre-investigation too somber. Levine comes close to pulling it all together, but perhaps a little more time spent learning the lessons of Annie Hall would help him turn Wild Canaries into an amateur gumshoe classic.

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