The Starling is a movie that can be held up as a good example of why Netflix should not get behind every single project that comes its way. The streaming giant probably thought that a tragicomic drama starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, and Kevin Kline (making one of his rare onscreen appearances these days) would be a sure bet. But like the CG-created bird that gives the movie its title, the movie never once approaches anything resembling reality.
What makes it worse is that the movie deals with some intensely painful and very real subjects: depression, grief, and that most unspeakable horror of all, the death of a child. Yet the script by Matt Harris (which somehow found its way onto the 2005 Black List of most-liked unproduced screenplays) never finds anything coherent or interesting to say about any of this, and the direction by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) is heavy-handed and tonally disjointed.
McCarthy and O’Dowd (whom Melfi directed in 2014’s St. Vincent) play Lilly and Jack Maynard, whose idyllic small town life with their new baby comes to a shattering end when little Katie passes away suddenly from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). One year later, a distraught Lilly drifts through life and her job as an assistant manager at a local supermarket, while Jack has checked himself indefinitely into a psychiatric hospital after attempting to follow Katie off this mortal coil.
Trying to move on, Lilly — on the advice of Jack’s doctor — goes to see Dr. Larry Fine (Kline), a former psychiatrist who was “on track to run Johns Hopkins” but threw it all away to start a small veterinary practice instead. At the same time, she clears out Katie’s room, gives away all her baby furniture, mows the overgrown lawn, and begins to plant a new garden…only to find herself engaging in a daily battle with the aggressive and utterly fake-looking title bird, who is obviously there to symbolize…what? Grief? Life itself? Whatever it’s supposed to be, it’s trite and manipulative.
The idea of three people all retreating from the world for reasons of their own and trying to help each other return is on its face a sound one, even if it’s been done many times before. So is a story about a couple dealing with the loss of their child, as devastating an event as one can imagine. But when every single scene is either played up for overwrought melodrama or, in the case of Lilly’s daily battle with the starling, bizarre humor that veers into ludicrousness (she wears a helmet and yet the tiny bird still seems capable of knocking her flat on her ass), something has gone badly off the rails.
It also doesn’t help that Melfi feels the need to blare some of the worst music of the past decade, in the form of so-called “alt-folk” acts like the Lumineers and Judah and the Lion, to punctuate nearly every single scene just in case we miss how emotional this is all supposed to be. As overbearing and fake as these smarmy acts sound, they are almost in their own way a perfect complement to The Starling.
McCarthy, so excellent as Lee Israel in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, proved indisputably in that film that she was capable of terrific dramatic work. But she’s lost here, waving her arms at the non-existent bird or yelling up at the walls of the hospital when Jack refuses to see her on one of her weekly visits. O’Dowd doesn’t fare much better with his underwritten and ultimately unsympathetic role, while Kline — always a welcome sight — invests just enough dignity in his role to make us potentially interested in seeing a movie about Dr. Larry.
But not that interested. There are a few moments of honest emotion here and there — the moment where Lilly tries to literally rub out the imprints of the legs of Katie’s crib in her bedroom carpet is unexpectedly poignant, for instance. And there is an exchange or two between Lilly and Larry that aren’t just pre-packaged words of wisdom or attempts at witty zingers. But these fleeting instances do not make up for the clumsiness and mawkishness of the rest of The Starling. We know that McCarthy, Melfi, and the others are all capable of doing better, but they got their wings clipped on this one.
The Starling premieres today (Friday, September 24) on Netflix.