Alia Shawkat, left, and Sophia Takal searching for clues in Wild Canaries (Sundance Selects)

Alia Shawkat, left, and Sophia Takal searching for clues in Wild Canaries (Sundance Selects)

Written and Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
Produced by Kim Sherman
Released by Sundance Selects
USA. 90 min. Not rated
With Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Jason Ritter, and Kevin Corrigan

Helmed by writer, producer, director, and star Lawrence Michael Levine, this caper-comedy has a refreshing cast of young actors assembled to solve a Hitchcock-like murder mystery. Levine leads the charge along with his co-star (and wife offscreen) Sophia Takal. They play Noah and Barri, a young, newly engaged Brooklyn couple living with a roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat), in a brownstone where one of their neighbors, Sylvia, is found dead in her apartment. While Noah sees nothing odd in the old woman’s demise, Barri wants to investigate further, believing that something is amiss.

Barri turns into a Harriet the Spy-like detective, adorned in a large hat and trench coat. Accompanied by her partner-in-crime, Jean, Barri shadows Sylvia’s son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), looking for evidence of any wrongdoing.  Noah, however, buries himself in office work and falls back into a romantic exchange with his previous partner, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who also happens to be a business associate. On top of this trouble, Noah wants Barri to stop acting like a whining child, and Barri wants Noah’s support in what she firmly believes is a murder conspiracy, which is confirmed when the couple discovers a severed head in a neighboring apartment.

What we have is a framing for murder, a dumping of a body, mistaken identity, and a collection of masks, which reminded me less of Hitchcock and more of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The outcome is calculated, and the mystery is a punchy metaphor for the young couple’s struggles in supporting each other as they embark on a life together.

Despite the occasional screwball dialogue and whodunit whimsy, spots of the film are very sluggish and not exciting enough for a full-length film. An effective murder-mystery should stay ahead of the viewer and move fast. Clue or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang are exhilarating tales with exceptional casting. Both possess a pace and quick wit this movie could use.

Instead, I’m reminded less of any feature narratives and more apt to describe this as a tamer version of Jonathan Ames’s popular HBO series Bored to Death. Its detective stories are, oddly enough, risky and risqué, replete with strangely comical delinquents taking up the same Brooklyn, NY, postage as Canaries.  Ames also keeps the cat in the bag consistently for three seasons. But even that show has exceptional performers and writing. This is more of a Mundane Murder Mystery without the irony.

Technically, Wild Canaries reaches with its zoom shots. One too many pervaded a few chase sequences to ironically emphasize suspense, and the effect unfortunately doesn’t last. The old-fashion iris ins and outs that bookend the movie come out of nowhere, and the apparent homage to Hitchcock that begins in the opening credit sequence doesn’t last.

The denouement of the plot’s intricacies, a staple for Hitchcock, Scooby, and Ames, moves fast in the final seven minutes. The editing is quick and through one conversation the mystery is wrapped up. But there are no Aha! moments. The mystery never deceives or tricks so the detailed explanation seems a little unnecessary.

As my disappointment apparently clashes with a number of reviews accessible via the film’s website, Wild Canaries does succeed on a minimal budget in evoking classic Hollywood conventions. Despite Levine’s best and arguably impressive efforts,  I argue that Hollywood needs to take back its own narrative devices for itself.