Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn
Director: Theodore Melfi
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm. This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad. It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week. Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.
Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches. Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away. She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other. Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.
On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast). A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less. Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood. As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor. As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on. The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.
Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband. The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy? Better yet, don’t.). It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine.
The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie. I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way. I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable. The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do. Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone. Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.
A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter. It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors. He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much. It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.
Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details. It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was. I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth. The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes. I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.
It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers. I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess. I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.