The new Brooklyn is generally derided as a wilderness of double-wide strollers, young men with the facial hair of Canadian loggers circa 1852, and artisanal everything. But in Wild Canaries, a modestly scaled murder mystery/comedy from writer-director-star Lawrence Michael Levine, today's Brooklyn is a place of danger and intrigue. Just as in the good old bad old days of the '70s and '80s, you can actually get killed there, and the first corpse to show up in Wild Canaries is that of 80-ish Sylvia (Marylouise Burke). Sylvia is the tenant of a rent-controlled apartment, and in New York City real estate terms, that right there makes her a sitting target for murder.
If Sylvia was murdered, who would do such a thing? A couple living in her building, Noah and Barri (Levine and Sophia Takal, who suggests a less twinkly Anna Kendrick), decide it's their duty to find out, enlisting the help of flatmate Jean (Alia Shawkat, who has disappointingly little to do) and Noah's sexy ex, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who broke up with him to shift over to the other team. The chief suspects? Sylvia's gruff, opaque son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), and the building's landlord, Damien (Jason Ritter), who, in a wholly believable New York twist, also happens to be an artist.
The story Levine spins out of this premise has a rambunctious, woolly quality, though in the end there may be too many stringy loose ends for him to weave in properly. Still, Wild Canaries has its quiet charms. The picture it most immediately brings to mind, intentionally or otherwise, is Woody Allen's superb midcareer escapade Manhattan Murder Mystery, which uses a whodunit framework to map the bumpy contours of a longtime romantic partnership. In Wild Canaries, the biggest mystery is whether Noah and Barri will stay together: They're both in their 30s, and whatever careers they might have been pursuing (the movie doesn't really specify) have run aground. They're low on money and, partly as a result of that, their relationship has run out of steam.
Wild Canaries falters when it asks us to believe in Noah and Barri as screwball-comedy heroes — Levine and Takal (who, incidentally, are married in real life) don't have the nervy charisma it takes to make that work. But in the early scenes, as they bicker and spar in their small, sparely furnished bedroom (itself part of an apartment shared with others), you can't help feeling for them.
The media in general, as well as movies and TV, paint modern, gentrified Brooklyn as a place where spoiled young people live the high life while ostensibly struggling for their art, for their rapidly growing careers or for something that, in the end, doesn't demand much of a struggle at all. But the reality, as Wild Canaries shows, is that real people still live there, people who don't have trust funds or groovy jobs or cool apartments in former factory spaces.
Noah and Barri are scrambling to hold it together; the last thing they need is a corpse in their midst. But then, maybe sometimes it takes a dead body to get two people back to the shared adventure of living.
WILD CANARIES | Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine | Sundance Selects | Arena Cinema