Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Stars: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine
4 (out of 5) Globes
“Wild Canaries” is a polished indie homage to screwball comedy, but its retro fever is not shallow. Its understanding of the subgenre runs deep. It doesn’t even have many screwball hallmarks: the dialogue, while often very funny, remains mumbly and off-the-cuff; there’s pratfalls but it doesn’t make a meal of them; the narrative is often driven by character, not story. But it nails the undercurrent of these films. It’s one of those screwballs the philosopher Stanley Cavell dubbed “comedies of remarriage” — ones, like, “The Awful Truth,” in which a couple flirt with consciously uncoupling but, through a turn of silly, madcap events, rediscover each other. Not that the relationship anxieties didn’t require exploring in the first place.
While “Wild Canaries” won’t ever be confused with “Bringing Up Baby,” it could easily be confused with “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Woody Allen’s severely underrated Diane Keaton reunion from 1993. In fact, they have almost the same plot, and even subplots. Real-life marrieds Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine — the latter who also wrote and directed — play Barri and Noah, who are engaged but at that point where neuroses, brought on by impending marriage, threaten the capsize their pairing. As in the Woody, an elderly neighbor dies; one of them (Barri) suspects murder, and the other (Noah) does not and is annoyed at her persistence. Also like the Woody, they are tempted by others: she by their smitten live-in third wheel (Alia Shawkat), he by an ex (Annie Parisse) who’s a lesbian having a relapse of bi-curiosity.
Takal and Levine are card-carrying members of the microbudget scene that erupted from the indie wave reluctantly dubbed “mumblecore,” and the films they act in (including by Joe Swanberg) or make themselves (Takal’s “Green,” Levine’s “Gabi on the Roof in July”) tend to err on the dark side of the relationship exploration spectrum. “Wild Canaries” definitely has the feel of an audience-pleasing break-out. That doesn’t make it a sell-out. Takal amps up her energetic charm to full-on spluttering kook, while Levine becomes an easily-flustered motormouth. But they never lose focus of their film as a relationship study. No matter how silly or dangerous things get — and even with some deaths and gunplay, Levine stops well short of true grit — it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the idea that marriage is a crazy, crazy concept, and that one should definitely ask the tough questions about whether spending one’s life with someone, especially one whose personality type is quite different from one’s own. It just happens to do this while finding room for a killer reclining car seat gag.