Moviegoer: The Starling

This movie is for the birds

By Diana Beechener

Lily Maynard (Melissa McCarthy: Nine Perfect Strangers) is doing her best to get through the day. After the death of her infant daughter, she clutches at every moment of normal life she can. She goes to work. She works in her garden. She does not let the emotion drag her down. She goes on, almost out of spite.

         Lily’s husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd: Get Shorty) isn’t coping as well with the horrific loss. After a breakdown, he’s checked himself into a mental institution and seemingly has little interest in coming home. Though Lily drives an hour both ways to visit him weekly, neither can seem to understand how to move forward.

         Deciding that fixing up the house might help her find a path forward, Lily begins to work in the garden. Unfortunately, an extremely territorial starling has made the garden its home and tries to fight Lily every time she ventures out.

         Can Lily and Jack find a way back to each other after an unimaginable tragedy? Or is Lily doomed to fight starlings in her garden alone?

         The Starling might have excellent intentions, but it’s a deeply flawed look at grief. The script was on The Black List, a yearly list of excellent unproduced scripts. It should have stayed there. Matt Harris’ script lacks believable characters, understanding of how the world works, and most unforgivably a sense of mawkish exploitation that makes all the grieving scenes feel contrived to make the audience cry instead of stemming from a place of real emotion. It feels disrespectful to use unimaginable grief so poorly, and try to turn it into a pithy metaphor. The starling is a metaphor, the light switch arts and crafts project in the film is a metaphor, everything in the film feels like a metaphor, it’s just a shame that none of them work.

Sure enough, the soundtrack, which features the “strummy strummy lala” music of The Lumineers, Brandi Carlile, and The Gravitons seems to exist solely to tell the audience when to cry.

         Things aren’t helped by some truly bizarre directing choices by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures). Melfi can’t choose a tone, wildly swinging the movie between goofy comedy and overwrought melodrama. McCarthy goes from sadly staring at her daughter’s empty room to having her leg aggressively humped by a dog in five minutes, with no sort of connective tissue. It’s as if Melfi didn’t have the confidence in McCarthy’s performance, so he kept forcing her back into comedic bits, hoping to appease her core audience.

         The real tragedy of the movie, and truly the tragedy of McCarthy’s career is that she’s not given a chance often enough to prove what a brilliant dramatic actress she is. When asked, she’s capable of subtly and nuance—there are a few truly affecting moments, where Lily just quietly digests her grief—but more often than not, filmmakers force her to be loud, loutish, and clumsy. It’s jarring to see a grieving mother go through broad comedy like falling off ladders, but Melfi seems to have no idea what to do with McCarthy other than that.

         The rest of the ensemble is equally left adrift. Kevin Kline shows up to dutifully say some ridiculous therapeutic dialogue, but the movie abandons him as the plot is wrapping up. The same can be said for Loretta Devine, Timothy Olyphant, and Daveed Diggs, who all show up for approximately four lines before being shuttled off screen. It’s as if everyone associated with this film owed the producers a favor.

         Not even the starling is believable thanks to some truly awful CGI. Allowances for that could be made with a better film, but clearly, they weren’t spending their budget on rewrites or multiple takes.

         There are a few lovely moments in the film, mostly between McCarthy and Kline, who should look into finding a good script so they can work together again, but they are few and far between. The only thing I can find to recommend this film is the fact that it’s free on Netflix.

If you’re truly interested in a dissection of grief after a tragic loss, Pieces of a Woman is available on Netflix as well, and won’t leave you feeling empty and annoyed.

Poor Drama * PG-13 * 103 mins

The Starling is available on Netflix, but you’re better off watching the new season of Bake Off.