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Theodore Melfi's “The Starling” expends so much energy trying to tug at your heartstrings that it never bothers to develop a pulse of its own. It's a stubbornly shallow film, the kind that traffics in clichés about grief to such a degree that it almost plays like the kind of parody of Oscar bait someone would see in a film about the movie industry. While this kind of manipulative melodrama is often easy to dismiss, what makes “The Starling” even more frustrating is the amount of talented people who got sucked into its spin cycle of sadness. There’s something just so disheartening about watching actors as nuanced as Melissa McCarthy or Kevin Kline in roles that work against their strengths and their usual instincts in creating complex characters. It's really more depressing than anything that actually happens in the movie itself.
The truth is that you might cry. It’s kind of hard not to when a drama centers people who have gone through the unimaginable grief of losing a child. I have three children and can’t really wrap my brain around it other than to say that I know I would simply be a completely different person. And yet the world doesn’t stop for people whose children die. Jack (Chris O’Dowd) can’t quite figure out how it hasn’t stopped, and eventually ends up at a psychiatric clinic. When Matt Harris’ script opens, Jack’s wife Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) is trying to hold it together for Jack’s return from the facility. She’s working at a grocery store (with a boss played by Timothy Olyphant in a role that makes you wonder why someone would cast such a recognizably charismatic performer in a non-role) and trying to maintain her family’s property, which leads to a few showdowns with a rambunctious bird, hence the title. She’s also driving two hours every week to see her husband and starting to wonder if he really wants to come home, and what life will be like when he does.
Lilly is in the very recognizable role of someone who prioritizes another’s grief without managing her own, and so a counselor at Jack’s clinic suggests she tend to her own mental health before her husband’s comes back into her daily life. This leads her into the office of a local veterinarian (Kevin Kline), who used to be a therapist but now espouses a somewhat cynical view of the profession. His new job will come in handy with the bird subplot, but he’s also really Lilly’s atypical advisor, someone who can speak to her without the same walls sometimes put up by his former profession.
The scenes between the Oscar-nominated McCarthy and Oscar-winning Kline are fascinating in the way they push and pull between what they’re capable of, and what they’ve been given by the script. Kline hints at back story that gives his role depth, but then his character returns to tedious clichés. Every piece of advice he gives Lilly seems tender because of Kline’s notable humanity on-screen, but also simplistic and designed to emotionally provoke the audience. It’s a film that’s constantly using its characters in ways that don’t feel genuine, and you can see the talented cast fight against it ... and lose.
What adds to the frustration is that there are themes inherent in this story that aren’t often explored well in melodrama, namely how two people stay together when their joint grief isn’t identical. The truth is that immense tragedy often destroys couples in part because we all grieve in our own way, and the idea that Jack and Lilly are dealing with the loss of their child in such different ways that they may not make it back together is fertile ground for complex, character-driven commentary. But that just never happens here because everyone is too busy button-pushing.
It doesn’t help that Melfi directs “The Starling” with all the grace of an investor’s presentation for the Hallmark Greeting Card company. It’s a visually flat film, which adds to the sense that the main creative drive here was to get the audience to cry. Most of us are open to our emotions when we watch films, but they have to be earned through character, depth, and realism. We can feel it when the tears aren’t earned through honesty. “The Starling” is too obviously weighed down with how much it wants your tears to ever really take emotional flight.
This review was originally filed in conjunction with the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12th. "The Starling" will open in limited theatrical release on September 17th before premiering on Netflix on September 24th.