Owing more than a little to Woody Allen’s minor but entertaining “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Lawrence Michael Levine’s latest film “Wild Canaries” (in which he writes, directs and stars) captures the current gestalt of romance in Brooklyn and casts it within the genre of the murder mystery. Indeed, the film also has roots that go as far back as the 1934 classic “The Thin Man,” with its main characters essentially being modern hipster versions of Nick and Nora Charles. But this is by no means to say that the film is derivative–far from it.
One of the film’s main attributes, flaws and all, is just how refreshing it feels within its constantly light but not trite flavor. It manages to present characters who very much live in today’s age (or struggle to, such as in a running joke where the main character simply can’t manage to figure out how to swipe his iPhone in order to answer it), but it does so tonally as a studio picture from the ‘40s would.
In classic screwball comedy whodunit form, the story follows a young, everyday couple–Noah (Levine) and Barri (Sophia Takal, the producer and Levine’s real-life wife)–who are quickly ensnared into a sinister plot after the death of the kindly old woman upstairs.
But to recount the plot would be merely to make you yawn with familiarity–it is only a generic springboard whereby Levine can, as he has said himself, air out his hypothetical thoughts and fears about his own real-life romance with Takal.
The charm of this film is in its details and subplots–such as a surprisingly well-honed representation of unrequited homosexual yearning that Barri’s friend Jean (“Arrested Development”’s Alia Shawkat) has for her. The absolutely killer opening credits sequence straight out of a Blake Edwards romp from the ‘60s also did wonders in arousing my interest and turning me on to its whimsical tone.
And of course, one must mention the filmmaker’s playful fetishizing of the camera iris, whereby an object is circularly isolated on the screen, surrounded by black (think the opening of a Bond film).
The film is not without its faults–there are certainly places where it could have been trimmed here and there, and it definitely could have used some more sharply dramatic turns and moments of irony to bring it to a plateau of genre-mashing worthy of the Coen Brothers. But perhaps it is precisely this meandering that allows for a comfortable sense of reality to set in amongst the film’s plot that remains high-concept on the surface.
Considering that it was made for a mere $200,000, it is astounding that the film looks as polished as any mid-range comedy on screens today, but with a lack of distracting stars and a truthfulness that such bigger budget films are sorely missing. It is filled with many ambitious floating master shots that occasionally manage to shock the audience with their striking composition.
Levine’s own favorite shots—Steadicam snapshot that follows his character on a rooftop through a series of very geometric, triangular architecture—pops off the screen with a completely earned flamboyance. The same can be said for one of the film’s closing shots–a backwards two-person tracking shot whereby the overly complicated mystery is explained in an intentionally expository way, which embraces a characteristic cliché of the genre.
One of the most intriguing moments in particular feels disconnected from the rest of the film, though its consequences do play a role in the climax. To say nothing of its context, it simply involves a married man and woman (not our protagonists), where the woman is kicking the man out of the house. They fight viciously, and eventually, they end up on the pavement outside of their building.
In one single shot, we see the man hold the woman down in struggle, but then he stops. He gently kisses her, and we think that this has all been just a silly fight. But then the woman coldly retaliates and viscously spits right back in his face. Angered, but still slightly playful, the man wipes the spit off of his face and rubs it all in her face, causing her to groan as he gets himself off the ground, and into the next shot.
Just by itself, to neither condone nor condemn the actions of either party, the shot really struck me as a portrait of the sometimes screwed up interactions that occur between two people who love each other, and how love and hate can oscillate by fractions of a second.
It’s certainly nothing new, and it definitely isn’t a positive portrait of how such interactions should go–but for some ineffable reason, the fact that such ideas were captured in one shot really spoke to me, and while nearly inconsequential to the rest of the film, the moment deserves to be highlighted, as I doubt any other critic will do so.
The film belongs to the recent cinematic movement that I like to call the “Brooklyn New Wave,” where, to give more famous examples, the likes of Lena Dunham (who acted in Levine’s previous work, “Gabi On The Roof In July”), and Joe Swanberg, make low-budget films that represent hipsterism in Brooklyn today.
This type of film has more broadly been referred to as mumblecore. But I feel that because there is a certain subset of mumblecore that uses Brooklyn itself as a character (much like how Woody Allen would use Manhattan)–from references to the Nitehawk Cinema, to the omnipresent Manhattan skyline across the river to remind us how separate this world is from the more traditional view of New York–that this film and others like it deserve to fall into such a category that I just coined.
All in all, if you’re hanging out in the Village sometime in the next few weeks, you could do worse than getting an espresso at Café Reggio, grab a slice from Joe’s, and head over to the IFC Center to see the delightful “Wild Canaries.”