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Madness is something that most comedies require but a remarkably small amount of filmmakers and writers know how to harness it, either in aesthetic control or in knowing when jokes overtake any semblance of personality in the script. The actual story beats of The Interview, for instance, might have made for a giddily outlandish comedy of substance had the filmmakers responsible done anything more than highlight the hit-and-miss one-liners; a script polish would have been nice too, but you can’t win them all. This is one of the reasons, though not by any means the only one, that Lawrence Michael Levine‘s Wild Canaries comes off as so refreshingly studied yet madcap, thoughtfully lensed and cut and while also rife with notes of utter lunacy and potent sexual tension. Levine co-stars in the film as well, playing the alcoholic boyfriend to Barri, a would-be entrepreneur who suddenly takes it upon herself to investigate the death of her elderly friend and neighbor.
Barri is played by Sophia Takal, Levine’s off-screen spouse, and part of the immediate allure of Wild Canaries is the self-reflexivity of the central couple, who are also involved in filmmaking and the fundraising needed to make such endeavors a reality. (Not for nothing is Takal also an astonishingly talented filmmaker; her 2011 debut, Green, is one of most haunting American independent dramas to be released this decade.) The opening sequence involves Barri staring at a pair of canaries flittering away inside a cage, quickly called away from her idling by Noah (Levine), whose trying to rush home with two arm’s worth of groceries. The rest of their relationship and the thematic underbelly of Wild Canaries has its roots in this interaction, a balance between the quotidian start-to-finish tasks of life and the indescribable moments of daydreaming, thoughtlessness, and whimsy. This even connects to the couple’s long-running argument over whether or not their elderly neighbor’s death was just a result of her old age – Noah’s belief – or, as Barri conceives of it, an elaborate murder perpetrated by her son (played by the brilliant Kevin Corrigan), or Damien (Jason Ritter), Noah’s violent, impulsive friend and neighbor.
Takal does a lot of acting with her facial reactions alone, hinting at moods and tremors in her interior life that would likely grow reductive when translated into words, and this style lends itself to Levine’s measured, uproarious maze of screwball occurrences in modern-day Brooklyn. Similarly, Levine gives an enthralling performance based largely in physicality and delivery, like those eardrum-breaking screams of pain from his enflamed neck and shoulders, and as a screenwriter, he smartly complicates the scenario with a pair of alluring romantic diversions. Barri’s best friend, Jean (Alia Shawkat), rents a room out of her and Noah’s apartment, and is not-so-subtly making moves on her friend, while Noah is tempted by his ex-girlfriend and current work partner, Eleanor (Annie Parisse).
On the face of it, these attractions highlight a sincere depiction of the fluidity of sexual attraction – both Jean and Eleanor identify as gay – but the interactions, along with the murder mystery, also reflect a troubling concern for many filmmakers, including Takal and Levine. Barri is attracted to the ludicrous hints of behavior that lead her to believe in the tangled plot to murder her neighbor, whereas Noah is comforted more by logic, reason, and some semblance of trust and common decency. They argue incessantly about their incompatible ways of thinking throughout Wild Canaries, filmed with the violent, unhinged intensity of a Cassavetes joint, but at base, their disagreements are about rational plotting versus wild expressiveness.
Though buffoonish and ridiculous at first sight, Barri’s notions are found to be somewhat legitimate (no fair spoiling the twists) but her excursions depend on an anchor, which Noah provides but Jean very simply doesn’t, due to her dreamy state of lustful attraction and romantic possibility. Similarly, Eleanor allows Noah not to worry about his rampant drinking and comes with the comfort of rekindled love, but never asks him to step outside himself, never challenges him. Even during the outrageous climactic sequences, Levine’s film balances the emotional strains of love and lust with symbolic acts of philosophical rumination and self-questioning, culminating in the kind of rare, sublime comic lunacy that powers classic studio comedies, not unlike Howard Hawks‘s mighty Bringing Up Baby.
Wild Canaries is now streaming on Netflix. Check back next week for a new Stream This.