Wild Canaries: SXSW Review

A mostly fine cast isn't enough to make comic-suspense pic fly

Lawrence Michael Levine follows a young Brooklynite (Sophia Takal) who's convinced her neighbor's death was a murder.

AUSTIN — Lawrence Michael Levine aims for Hitchcock and Manhattan Murder Mystery in Wild Canaries, a Brooklyn-set comedy pairing retro fixations with chaotically modern sexual dynamics. Despite an appealing cast, though, neither comedy nor suspense really takes flight until very near the end, largely due to a script that isn't equal to the filmmakers' enthusiasm. The resulting picture may draw interest based on name recognition, but won't benefit from word-of-mouth.

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Levine and Sophia Takal, who are married in real life, have little onscreen chemistry as Noah, a sourpuss indie film distributor entering his late 30s, and Barri, his optimistic and much younger fiancee. Their roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat) harbors a secret crush on Barri; Noah's coworker and ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse), now a lesbian herself, is a further complication for a relationship nearing a crisis.

That crisis comes from an unexpected direction when the couple's elderly neighbor (Marylouise Burke) dies and Barri suspects foul play. While Noah rolls his eyes, Barri becomes an amateur sleuth, sneaking into other people's homes and going on trenchcoat-clad stakeouts to prove that Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), the neighbor's son, killed her for insurance money. When he's not out getting drunk with their artist-landlord Damien (Jason Ritter) or Eleanor, Noah has fights with Barri about her investigation that are probably meant to be comically agitated but instead just grate.

Barri turns out to be at least partly right, of course, and the movie follows the unfolding action with sometimes endearing affectation: Michael Montes's score, full of shock-cues, mimics the suspense films of Hollywood's golden era; the title sequence recalls Bond films and Saul Bass; zoom lenses and iris effects refer to other points in movie history.

Levine fails to get us as interested in this murder as Barri is, and as charming as Takal can be, she can't do that on her own. Once all the characters are in her corner, hypothesizing together about who did what and trying to trap the villains, the movie's occasional offerings of physical humor (many derived from a neck brace Noah wears) keep things perky. But even at a world premiere where many in the crowd were friends of the production, laughs were scarce and unenthusiastic. The jumble of erotic entanglements (none of which are manifest onscreen) generates a bit more interest than the murder plot, but here too things feel half-baked.

Production Company: Little Teeth Pictures

Cast: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Jason Ritter, Kevin Corrigan

Director-Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine

Producers: Sophia Takal, Kim Sherman, E. McCabe Walsh

Executive producer: Andrew Corkin

Director of photography: Mark Schwartzbard

Production designer: Adam Brustein

Music: Michael Montes

Costume designer: Lanie Faith Marie Overton    

Editor: Sofi Marshall

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 98 minutes