‘The Starling’ Review: A Maudlin Grief Drama That Clips Melissa McCarthy’s Wings

Demanding only superficial emoting from a fine cast, Theodore Melfi's Netflix-bound film doubles down on heavy-handed metaphor to drive home its heavy-handed therapy-speak.

The Starling
Courtesy of Netflix

Late in “The Starling,” at a stage when Melissa McCarthy’s grieving mother has never felt more distant from her withdrawn husband, she receives a pep talk from Kevin Kline’s wise confidante about the titular bird. When starlings mate, he explains, they build and protect their nest together: “They’re just not meant to exist in the world alone.” “Real subtle stuff,” she responds, with a trademark McCarthy grimace.

It’s a bit rich at this point for “The Starling” to lampshade such a cornily obvious metaphor, given that Theodore Melfi’s film has already given us ample scenes of McCarthy’s character growing and nurturing a vegetable garden from scratch on dried-out, weed-strewn land, defending it from the aforementioned starlings as they themselves forge a home of their own from scraps and trash, and cathartically ridding her house of all its furniture for good measure. What could it all mean?

Human/nature metaphor is easier to write, however, than true human nature: “The Starling” is heavy with a particularly Hallmark-ready variety of the former, and digestibly light in all other respects. Losing a child is the kind of pain unimaginable to those who have never had the misfortune, but here it feels familiar from countless other films on the subject, its ugliest truths softened with cute visual shorthand, a stringy, positively suffocating score by Benjamin Wallfisch, and the kind of tidy, teary therapy-speak that you never actually hear in therapy. It’s easy enough to watch, thanks largely to its leading lady’s reliably buoyant charisma, but you can’t help thinking it should be harder.

Still, “The Starling” will doubtless attract a warmly receptive audience when it bows on Netflix shortly after its Toronto Film Festival premiere. McCarthy’s more sentimentally inclined fans will be sated with this showcase for her brand of everywoman comedy, which finds room for a few signature pratfalls amid the maudlin confessionals. No one can be surprised at this point by the actor’s rumpled, vulnerable dramatic chops, though despite the higher emotional stakes, they’re not tested here as delicately or expansively as they were in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” or even her previous Melfi collaboration, “St. Vincent.”

Near the outset of the film, we open on her character, small-town supermarket worker Lily, staring at a shelf of baby-care products with a hollow, resigned look of yearning that effectively colors in all the backstory that Matt Harris’s script withholds for another 20 minutes or so. It’s been a year since Lily and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) lost their only daughter to sudden infant death syndrome, and since then, she’s effectively been left to cope — which is to say, not cope at all — on her own. Following a psychological breakdown, grade-school teacher Jack has been in a mental health facility while he seeks a way forward in life. The couple’s weekly meetings are increasingly strained and unproductive, as they exchange nothing but silent burdens of blame.

Lily, for her part, attempts to self-heal via the aforementioned strategies of gardening and Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of the couple’s vast, gorgeous rural farmhouse. Time outdoors brings her into frequently aggressive contact with the feisty, territorial starling nesting on her property — a somewhat disconcerting CGI creation introduced in a distractingly elaborate flight sequence over the film’s opening credits, as he bobs, weaves and soars across town, scooping up material for the nest and evading the larger threats of cars and crows. The bird’s turf wars with Lily are a running source of somewhat repetitive slapstick, though you needn’t have read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” to imagine what this free, family-minded creature might come to represent for our heroine.

Seeing as how the perfectly personable Lily lives one of those hermetically sealed, screenwriter-friendly lives inexplicably devoid of secondary family and friends, “The Starling” contrives her Someone To Talk To in the shape of kindly psychoanalyst-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kline) — because a plain old human therapist wouldn’t be winsomely quirky enough. He’s rusty, but at least he can get by with the basics: Conveniently, Lily hasn’t even heard of the 12 stages of grief.

Will Larry bring his tender affinity for the animal kingdom to bear on her healing process? Will the bird be a handy illustrative prop in the process? Will the good doctor develop a personality separate from his twinkly platitudes? Have a guess. Suffice it to say that “The Starling’s” emotional arcs are as narratively complete as they are psychologically dashed-off.

Kline is only the most prominent of several stock supporting characters assigned to absurdly overqualified actors: If Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier and Timothy Olyphant signed on hoping “The Starling” might follow on from Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” in its ensemble-minded generosity, they ought to be disappointed. Cast against type as the near-terminally morose Jack, O’Dowd is at least persuasive as a man whose natural bounce has been lead-weighted to the ground. But it’s McCarthy alone who has to get us through this, in a story where “getting through this” is both the biggest ask in the world, and all too easily answered.

‘The Starling’ Review: A Maudlin Grief Drama That Clips Melissa McCarthy’s Wings

Reviewed online, Sept. 11, 2021. (In Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 103 MIN.

  • Production: A Netflix presentation of a Limelight, eOne, Boies/Schiller Entertainment, Goldenlight Films production. Producers: Theodore Melfi, Kim Quinn, Chris Parker, Dylan Sellers. Executive producers: David Boies, Zack Schiller, Zev Foreman, Jen Gorton, Tyler Zacharia, Alex Dong, Gabriela Revilla Lugo.
  • Crew: Director: Theodore Melfi. Screenplay: Matt Harris. Camera: Lawrence Sher. Editors: Peter Teschner, Matthew Friedman. Music: Benjamin Wallfisch.
  • With: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Kevin Kline, Kim Quinn, Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Loretta Devine.