Classic mystery conventions have provided fertile creative ground for any number of young American filmmakers in recent years, as evidenced by Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather” and now Lawrence Michael Levine’s “Wild Canaries.” Starring Levine and Sophia Takal (his wife and regular collaborator) as a sort of hipster Nick and Nora Charles investigating the shady goings-on around their Brooklyn apartment building, this craftily structured yet playfully loose-limbed detective yarn provides a canny narrative template for another of the writer-director’s low-budget studies of relational turmoil (following 2011’s “Gabi on the Roof in July”), its occasional descent into shrill bickering largely offset by the filmmakers’ palpable delight in their choice of material. Far too eventful, plot-driven and frankly fun to be classified as mumblecore, “Canaries” can only build on Levine’s audience; it could catch on with savvy indie filmgoers, particularly those with an affection for the genre being saluted.
From the tacky/trippy opening-credits sequence (set to Michael Montes’ delightfully brassy score) to the way the camera irises in and out of the action, Levine evinces a witty sense of style at the outset, although what we see initially feels par for the New York indie course. Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) are a Brooklyn couple slowly inching their way toward marriage, despite obvious fissures in their foundation: Barri is an irrepressible ball of energy, full of childlike enthusiasm and reluctant to commit to her b.f. or any concrete life goals; Noah, nearly 10 years her senior, is a killjoy by comparison and often has to rein her in. Not helping matters is the presence of their lesbian roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat), whose strong bond with Barri may be more than strictly platonic.
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The cracks only deepen when Barri, paying a routine visit to her 84-year-old downstairs neighbor, Sylvia (Marylouise Burke), finds the old woman dead of an apparent heart attack. But when Sylvia’s visiting son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), seems less than grief-stricken during and after the funeral, Barri begins to suspect he may know more about his mother’s death than he’s letting on. Soon she’s convinced herself that Anthony bumped Sylvia off, speculating breathlessly about a possible motive and even breaking into his apartment in search of evidence — all to the increased exasperation of Noah, who assumes Barri’s imagination has been kicked into overdrive by a recent Hitchcock retrospective. But it soon becomes clear that something’s very amiss, and that Sylvia’s death may have something to do with their landlord, Damien (Jason Ritter), a regular poker buddy of Noah’s who’s going through his own marital and financial woes.
Levine’s script does a clever job of keeping numerous balls in the air over the taut 99-minute running time, and the writer is especially good at using the information he feeds us in unexpectedly resourceful, double-edged ways. Clever in-jokes and gags abound; Noah’s chronic inability to operate a smartphone is not just a source of amusement but ultimately a key plot point, while the neck brace he’s forced to wear (Levine takes a lot of physical abuse in this movie) feels like a nod to Jack Nicholson’s nose bandage in “Chinatown.”
Domestic tension is at once a recurring motif and, in some ways, the movie’s true subject: One particularly nasty couple’s spat turns out to be an important piece of the puzzle, and as Noah and Barri are drawn deeper into a dense narrative thicket, their bond is at once tested and strengthened in ways that only further elevate the story’s dramatic stakes. Indeed, the mystery they’re trying to solve is really no more convoluted than their own messy emotional dynamics; along with Jean, there’s also Noah’s colleague and ex-girlfriend, Molly (Eleonore Hendricks), who prefers women but retains her affection for Noah, sending the picture into full-blown romantic quadrangle territory.
Levine and Takal played a squabbling brother and sister in “Gabi on the Roof in July” (and casual friends in Takal’s 2011 directorial debut, “Green”), and here, they’ve placed an exaggerated version of themselves onscreen — at least, one hopes it’s exaggerated, given the frequency with which their conversations devolve into a nonstop screaming frenzy. Indeed, there are at least two lengthy sequences in which the characters’ bickering reaches such a peak of grating excess that you almost can’t help but yell “Shut up!” at the screen, not least because one of these conversations takes place at a moment when hushed silence would seem the advisable option. It’s a relief by comparison to watch Shawkat, offering smart-alecky support as Barri’s best friend, and Hendricks, who makes Molly lovely, vivacious and surprisingly perceptive when it comes time to figure out whodunit. Corrigan and especially Ritter are solid in their hefty supporting roles.
While “Wild Canaries” can scarcely be termed realistic, its characters’ motives turn out to be firmly rooted in the real world, whether it’s the cost of a rent-controlled apartment or an investment that went belly-up thanks to Hurricane Sandy. That authentic sense of place applies to the whole production, which was filmed (nimbly, by d.p. Mark Schwarztbard) almost entirely in Lawrence and Takal’s actual apartment building, the odd chase through the streets of Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill notwithstanding. The film draws its title from the caged birds occasionally glimpsed throughout, an obvious metaphor for the flighty, restless couple at its core.