Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Wild Canaries

I recently saw the film Black Bear (2020), with Aubrey Plaza, and really liked it. Set in upstate New York, broken into two contrasting parts, it plays as a sort of cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a John Cassavetes movie, in particular Opening Night, a psychological mind screwer with a great and multi-layered performance from Plaza.  The writer-director is Lawrence Michael Levine, and since I'd liked Black Bear so much, I decided to watch his previous film, from 2014, called Wild Canaries.

This one hearkens back to the classic tradition of screwball mystery, with a married Brooklyn couple, often bickering, neither a cop or a professional detective, investigating the death of an elderly lady who lived in the same building that they do. The woman lived in the building's last rent-controlled apartment, and when her grown son starts acting oddly after her death, delivering an off-key eulogy at her funeral and selling off her possessions quickly as though he is in dire financial straits, the wife in the couple, Barri (Sophia Takal), begins to suspect that the son (Kevin Corrigan) killed his mother.  Perhaps Barri's enthusiasm is fueled by her love of Hitchcock movies, but eventually, the son's behavior makes even the husband, Noah (Levine), suspicious.  They begin poking around in the son's life, aided by their gay roommate Jean (Ali Shawkat) who has a thing for Barri.  Barri and Noah have been having their own difficulties, but the investigation they launch themselves into involves them in something that distracts them from their problems and might, just might, help their relationship.  

Wild Canaries has an obvious love for The Thin Man movies and one can't help but think as well of Manhattan Murder Mystery.  The pace is fast, the dialogue rapid-fire, and the investigative shenanigans amusing.  It's difficult to balance a genuine mystery with a marital comedy, but this one does it well, all the while capturing in a wry way early 2010s hipster world Brooklyn, with its aspiring and sometimes pretentious artists, rent worries, cramped apartments, and constant financial anxiety.  It's completely different in tone and style than Black Bear, and the chemistry between Levine and Takal, who are married in real life (and she also is a filmmaker, having directed the psychological thriller Always Shine as well as the Black Christmas remake) is excellent. For its 98 minutes running time, Wild Canaries is quite diverting, something perfect if you too love a certain film tradition and want to laugh.

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