Light Murder: "Wild Canaries" a spry, likable cutie of an indie

Wild Canaries (2015)
102 min., not rated (but equivalent to PG-13).

The third collaboration between husband-and-wife filmmakers Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal (2010's "Gabi on the Roof in July"), "Wild Canaries" puts an indie spin on the classic screwball comedies and murder mysteries of yore, not unlike "Manhattan Murder Mystery," Woody Allen's 1993 highly enjoyable reunion with Diane Keaton. It's a loose, spry, agreeable lark, one part whodunit and another part relationship comedy, that makes cute, retro use of iris wipes, zoom lenses, and dun-dun-dun gumshoe music, as well as having the leads take in a Hitchcock movie one evening, but also gives enough breathing room to invest in these characters.

Financially strapped 36-year-old Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) supports younger fiancée Barri (Sophia Takal) to live in their Brooklyn apartment, which the couple shares with lesbian roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat). He gambles and drinks a lot downstairs in landlord/pot-smoking artist Damien's (Jason Ritter) apartment once Barri goes to sleep, and she and Jean have developed a real friendship. While Noah works with his ex-girlfriend-turned-lesbian colleague, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), Barri has ideas with Jean to restore an abandoned resort. When Barri goes down for elderly neighbor Sylvia's (Marylouise Burke) chess lesson, she discovers the old woman has dropped dead. She's pronounced dead from a heart attack and, from Barri doing some snooping, has a $300,000 life insurance policy, but Barri smells foul play and believes Sylvia's son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) murdered her. She is so adamant about her hunch, despite Noah's skepticism, that she's not going to stop until getting to the bottom of Sylvia's death.

Written and directed by actor Lawrence Matthew Levine, "Wild Canaries" is a breezily entertaining itty-bitty movie that hums along on its knowingly convoluted murder-mystery hypothesizing and character eccentricities. Wavering between cute and annoying, Sophia Takal brings a wide-eyed kookiness and enthusiasm to Barri, who's 90% certain Anthony has committed murder and might also be a bit bi-curious in her own friendship with Jean. As Noah, Levine is a killer comedian, making great sight gags out of not being able to answer calls from his "new-fangled" smart phone, wearing a neck brace (which is the entire last half of the film), and reclining in a driver's seat. At times, the real-life couple shares a crackling banter; other times, they are just broad and shrill that one wishes they would just end up with their other possible partners, both of whom are interested in women. Alia Shawkat exhibits her natural comic flair as Jean, Barri and Noah's roommate who partakes in Barri's sleuthing. As Noah's ex, Annie Parisse, who's spent most of her years thanklessly cast in the role of the sounding-board gal pal in romantic comedies, is awkwardly used at times—Eleanor's girlfriend somehow finds out about her too-close-for-friends encounter with Noah and kicks her out, only for Eleanor to move in temporarily with Noah, Barri and Jean—but then smartly figures into the proceedings.

There is sometimes a disparity in the kind of film "Wild Canaries" wants to be, nearly making its intentions muddled, but the whodunit is mildly involving, with a little tension when Barri breaks into apartments without being endangered too much, and the humor is amusing and comes organically from the characters. Also, as a small-sized production, it looks polished and appealing. For suckers of whodunits where a would-be detective dresses in a Columbo trench coat, sunglasses and a floppy hat, and ducks behind trees when trailing the suspect, "Wild Canaries" is entirely inconsequential but utterly likable.

Grade: B -