The Starling premieres Friday, Sept. 24 on Netflix.
Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd trade in their usual, more traditional comedic personas and performances to play a couple struggling through grief and loss in Netflix’s sappy and unfocused The Starling, featuring a distractingly out-of-sync CGI bird causing pesky problems while also being a metaphor for, you know, life’s mysteries and stuff.
McCarthy and O’Dowd do their darnedest and give their utmost in a film that wants very much to be an exploration of sorrow and heartache, but also one with a quirky Garden State-style dramedy vibe that sanitizes and just about sinks the entire thing. Throw in the bird (the titular starling) that whisks around in a cloud of overly sentimental pandering, feeling like the feather in Forrest Gump, and the actual serious and wrenching subject finds itself washed out to sea by a tide of silly hokum.
The Starling Gallery
Kevin Kline, who we’d all do better in seeing more of in general, feels wasted here. Not because of his screen time, as he’s the third lead here, but in his character’s role and arc. In the aftermath of the loss of their young daughter, McCarthy’s Lily and O’Dowd’s Jack find themselves in starkly different places. While Jack spends time in a mental health care facility, Lily trudges on, more or less refusing to address her own anguish. Kline plays her default therapist, a local veterinarian who used to be a counselor but now prefers the company of animals. Throughout the story, Kline’s curmudgeon warms to Lily and, through a few conversations about the territorial bird in her front yard, helps her realize various vague platitudes to aid her recovery. You’ll want a Good Will Hunting-type of breakthrough, but you’ll get Farmer’s Almanac wisdom.
The film even seems to know that it should make use of Kline’s abilities more, putting him on screen in ways that are wholly unnecessary. There’s a moment between Jack and Kline’s Dr. Fine that serves no purpose other than to bring those two in a scene together. And since we’re talking about wasted talent here, there are huge draws — former and current leads of their own TV shows — who pop in for little-to-nothing roles.
Timothy Olyphant is supposed to be comic relief but comes off as fake as the bird, while Hamilton and Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs is relegated to barely a blip. Emmy winner Loretta Devine, meanwhile, best represents The Starling’s mixed-up attempt to convey a cathartic story for those who don’t want to endure anything too heavy or revealing.
There are a few moments of genuine wonder, and you don’t often see a story about a couple trying to find a way forward after the loss of a child. Usually these stories focus on one parent over the other, or even eliminate one completely by having the relationship bust and that partner leave, but The Starling actually weighs both of Lily and Jack’s obstacles (more or less) equally.
In doing so, however, and by throwing in a computer bird that never fails to pull you out of any and all emotional territory, The Starling muddies its own waters gives us a tale that pretty much demands a happy ending brought about by convenient revelation and cheesy reconciliation. Again, this is a serious topic that’s been sugar-coated in bizarre, and often boring, ways.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, Hidden Figures) — and with songs by The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Brandi Carlile — The Starling isn’t too far removed from a Hallmark condolences card. In spare moments, the subject matter is granted permission to go to honest places, but mostly it’s painted into a corner by whimsey and obfuscation in the form of a bird that gives both the main characters and us a shield against introspection.
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