Hitting select theaters and Netflix accounts on a wing and a prayer, The Starling is a dramedy that’s out to tug at your heartstrings and tickle your funny bone at the same time. How much are you willing to bet that that plan doesn’t exactly take off?
We’ve got Melissa McCarthy — rocking one pair of Mom jeans after another — as Lilly, a woman who lost her newborn baby girl to SIDS not too long ago. While she’s out and about, barely keeping it together (she practically sleepwalks through her job at the supermarket, constantly working on the same Hostess SnoBalls display that’ll, of course, play into the plot later), her husband Jack (Chris O’ Dowd) is staying at a mental-health facility after Lilly found him trying to off himself in the garage.
With Jack getting proper psychiatric treatment and Lilly seriously needing it, a therapist at the facility suggests that she should see an old colleague. It turns out this colleague, named — I kid you not — Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline), used to be a psychiatrist, but now he’s a veterinarian. Even though she doesn’t own any pets, this doesn’t stop Lilly from coming to the doctor for advice. His expertise is definitely needed once she starts gardening again in her front yard, where she’s terrorized by a bird (wanna guess what kind?) who thinks its turf is being invaded.
Considering the downright disrespectful attitude this bird displays here (oh, yes — bird droppings do appear), the starling is an odd, misguided bird. Coincidentally, The Starling is an odd, misguided bird of a film. Working from a script by first-timer/former Ridiculousness executive producer Matt Harris, director Theodore Melfi (who, along with McCarthy, explored similar, sentimental terrain with the forgettable St. Vincent in 2014) really amps up the sunny quirkiness. Set in one of those sun-kissed small towns where a farmers’ market could pop up at the drop of a hat, Starling is a film that attempts to find humor in a very sad situation. Apparently, Melfi thought this could be easily achieved by having McCarthy and Dowd — both clowns who can act — play the lead couple, two people who often make awkward, smart-ass asides when things get a bit too serious.
But, honestly, this makes the characters look like dicks. It’s bad enough they both appear to be on their own selfish, emotional journey, each one refusing to recognize how much the other is drowning in grief. But do they gotta be snarky about it too? And they’re surrounded by supporting characters who seem to be either high, dense or just plain weird; Melfi also places capable actors like Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, and Loretta Devine (who’s stuck in angry, foul-mouthed Black momma mode) in thankless non-roles. It’s messed up when the most animated performance in this thing comes from that CGIed-all-to-hell bird.
(BTW, the soundtrack is plastered with songs from Brandi Carlile, The Lumineers, Nate Ruess and other MOR performers you often hear while waiting for your order at Starbucks.)
Movies about couples dealing with the loss of a child are always risky. (Anybody remember that Nicole Kidman downer Rabbit Hole?) Melfi, McCarthy and company basically go for broke on The Starling, which tries — and fails — to milk both laughs and tears out of viewers.
“The Starling” streams Friday on Netflix.