Back in the 30’s and 40’s a very popular film series called The Thin Man became a favorite of film goers. Starring Hollywood legends William Powell and Myrna Loy, the original which was titled The Thin Man was shot in 12 days in 1934, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture. This film spawned five sequels. While I am uncertain about The Thin Man being the first screwball comedy, I am fairly certain that it was the first screwball comedy murder mystery.
Between 1957 and 1959, The Thin Man was a successful TV series and starred Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. The screwball element was still present as was the sophisticated repartee and dialogues. In all 72 episodes aired.
In the 1970’s we had McMillan & Wife on our TVs. Starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James, the series played 40 episodes over the period of 1971 to 1976. The episodes were 90 minutes each. We still had the man and woman solving murders, except this time he wasn’t a retired private detective – he was the Commissioner of the San Francisco Police Department. St.James kept the role of the kooky wife created by Myrna Loy in play.
Which brings us to 2014. Arriving at the Sarasota Film Festival tonight was Wild Canaries. Yes, going in, this film could be called a screwball comedy/murder mystery, and it has definitely been updated for the times. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, who co-stars with Sophia Takal as his fiancé, the film is set in a Park Slope Brooklyn brownstone building. Noah (Levine) and Barri (Takal) share an apartment. Also on board in the same apartment is their friend Jean (Alia Shawkat).
There’s a couple who live on the ground and second floor; a guy named Damien and his wife and child. A nice old lady Sylvia lives on the 3rd floor and Barri is friends with her – is discovered by Barri dead on the floor of her bedroom. The Emergency Medics are summoned and it is ruled a death by heart attack. But Barri doesn’t quite believe that an 80 year woman who had a triple by-pass heart surgery, and a hip replacement – could be in bad enough shape to suddenly succumb to a heart attack, she believes it must be foul play. See, here we are barely seven minutes in, and already we have a screwball theory.
She goes on to pester Noah and Jean endlessly about this. The dynamic is such that we aren’t particularly displeased by Barri’s notions, but rather we begin to seriously dislike the constant bickering that we are a witness to. Noah doesn’t seem all that invested in his engagement – there’s the all night poker games with weed and booze in Damien’s apartment downstairs which Noah uses as a refuge from Barri, and this seems to attract him more than the whining Barri.
Noah is also in business with an ex-gf named Eleanor played by Annie Parisse who appeared in many episodes of Law & Order as A.D.A. Alexandra Borgia. As to what kind of business they do – it isn’t clear, and at the moment – despite their past involvement, Eleanor is now a lesbian.
Jean is in business with Barri – and together they have an idea to buy a failed Catskills resort and restore it. They even raise a half million in seed money from a friend of Jean’s. Jean says, We probably got the money because I gave this guy a blowjob once. Also worthy of mention is that Jean now is also a lesbian, and she tells us that she hasn’t had sex in more than year.
Well Barri – when she’s not bickering with Noah, which is a near constant thing, begins snooping around the old lady’s apartment. She uses a transit card to jimmy open the lock. She finds evidence of a large insurance policy on the dead woman so she immediately suspects the old lady’s son – a 40 something real estate dude called Anthony from Florida.
Jean and Noah aren’t buying into it at all. But they can’t dissuade Barri. She continues to snoop and poke and pry – nearly getting caught while in the apartment. So the bickering between Barri and Noah escalates.
Eventually Barri and Jean decide to follow Anthony, who to tell the truth, is acting quite suspicious. And this pretty much is the first half of the film.
The first half was loaded with some terrible choices. Far too much bickering, a nondescript and boring apartment. No one is working at anything that can be described. Too many closeups in a too small a space, and a loud and intrusive soundtrack which gives overemphasized musical clues which are not needed. Despite the fact of a few catchy reggae songs, the music tracks aren’t positives . On top of that, neither Barri nor Noah are appealing characters.
The second half does pick up the pace considerably, actually involving tailing a suspect in a car, more snooping which means more opportunity for them to be caught where they shouldn’t be, as well as an escalation of violence which introduces the element of real fear. Additionally we get much more of Jean and Eleanor, both of whom sparkle in the film’s second half.
I’m coming in with a rating of three-point zero for Wild Canaries – a reference to caged birds in a neighborhood pet shop that both opens and closes the film. As far as labelling this a screwball comedy, I’ll agree to the screwball but not the comedy. It simply isn’t all that funny. The film sorely lacks sophistication and wit. Now I’m not saying there isn’t humor, but there’s not enough.
But Levine as writer and director has a good sense of keeping things in motion, at least in the second half. He also understands how to ratchet up the suspenseful elements. Where he goes astray is with the leads (and he’s one of them)- they simply aren’t going to get us to root for them. Even by film’s end, which is wrapped up and explained (almost expertly) by Parissie as Eleanor, who if truth be known is real brains of the cast, we just don’t care that much about Noah and Barri.