Brooklynites Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Barri (Sophia Takal), though engaged to be married, are emotionally adrift. These professionally listless lovebirds, so prone to intensely passive-aggressive argumentativeness, suggest characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a mumblecore film keyed to their conversational intimacy and little else. Yet Wild Canaries writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine chooses to send them scrambling through a neo-screwball, employing the trappings of a drawing-room whodunit so as to provoke them into reevaluating their relationship. They’re almost cosmically called on the carpet when the sweet old lady living upstairs passes away and her shifty, mumbling son (Kevin Corrigan) starts acting suspicious. As a result, Barri immediately awakens to her life’s purpose as she and Noah metamorphose into an urban-bohemian version of Dashiell Hammett’s private-detective couple from the 1940s, Nick and Nora Charles.
Even if the plot of Wild Canaries is mostly an homage to Manhattan Murder Mystery, it’s an adoring one—finding, in the spirit of its dub-reggae score, its own groove. Though the film occasionally employs discordant piano chords seemingly as a means to highlight sudden reveals, each of these sequences is cut so that the surprise is foregone, subtly mocking the manufactured suspense of so many formulaic thrillers. The film instead derives tension in more ingenious, homemade ways, as in a neck brace that Noah is forced to wear that isn’t played for dumbed-down physical comedy, but exploited at a supremely delicate juncture when his immobilization threatens exposure of the possible killer that he and Barri are tracking. The film occupies a sweet spot between the self-aware and taut. Barri never seems oblivious to the fact she’s wound up in a choose-your-own adventure story, and the delirious ecstasy with which she seizes on every genre rubric is positively endearing. When she gets stuck on her building’s roof in the midst of some lo-fi derring-do, she calls Noah and asks him to come home, ostensibly for assistance, but really so he can share in this feeling of emotional rejuvenation.
Levine’s script transforms the fledgling couple who become accomplices of the main duo, played in Manhattan Murder Mystery by Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda, into a pair of unlucky-in-love lesbians: Jean (Alia Shawkat), who may have eyes for Barri, and Eleanor (Annie Parisse), an ex-girlfriend of Noah’s who might not be entirely committed to her new lifestyle. This simmering love quadrangle, with its swirling secrets and lies and pent-up emotions that everyone struggles to confront, becomes as complicated as the escalating intricacies of the mystery itself. Throughout the entire amateur investigation Noah can’t help but offer ridiculous justifications for how every increasingly odd circumstance has a rational explanation. He wants to believe everything will be fine if they simply leave this possible crime alone. But rather than ignore it, Barri forces herself and her aimless fiancé to confront what’s right in front of them as the parlor game’s absurdist resolution becomes the conduit to their relationship’s salvation.