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‘The Starling’ is for the birds

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with tonal variance in a film. In the right circumstances, that can allow for a wider net to be cast with regard to the themes and ideas explored. A well-executed balance of laughter and tears can result in something greater than the sum of its parts.

If it ISN’T well-executed, however, you might be left with an ineffectual mishmash.

Such is the case with the new Netflix drama “The Starling.” The film – which is directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd – never seems able to find any kind of tonal consistency, punctuating its family drama intentions with moments of avian-flavored slapstick. Again, it’s not that such vacillation CAN’T work, but here, it definitely doesn’t.

That isn’t to say that the participants aren’t acting in good faith. In truth, McCarthy and O’Dowd – as well as a number of supporting players – are putting forward solid efforts. It’s just that the script and the overall lack of emotional coherence undermines those efforts, resulting in something that comes off like a Lifetime movie crossed with a Looney Tunes short.

When we meet the Maynards – Lily (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) – they are a happy couple, deeply in love. They’ve just welcomed their first child, a daughter named Katie, into their lives. They’re converting a room into a nursery and generally excited about what the future holds.

One year later, everything has changed. The tragic loss of their daughter has left them each broken in their own way. Jack is the more overtly impacted – his inability to deal with the situation has resulted in him being admitted to a mental health facility. On the surface, Lily is handling things better – she is still at home, still holding down her job – but she’s also struggling. The conflicting feelings between them bubble up during the weekly visits Lily pays to the facility to see Jack.

A particularly contentious session leads the facility’s therapist Regina (Kimberly Quinn) to recommend that Lily speak to a former colleague of hers. Reluctantly, Lily agrees to do so, only to discover that said former colleague Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) has changed fields and become a veterinarian. Despite that, the two begin a sort of informal therapeutic relationship.

All the while, Lily is trying to deal with the slowly creeping overgrowth of her home’s lawn and garden, only to discover that a bird, a starling, has apparently decided that Lily’s yard is the bird’s territory, leading to an actively antagonistic dynamic between the two – one that quickly ventures into the realm of absurdity.

As Lily seeks to find a way to deal with her feelings, Jack is drifting in some dark directions. While Lily is talking to Larry, getting hassled by her boss Travis (Timothy Olyphant) and doing battle with a territorial bird, Jack’s sadness deepens to the point where he pushes Lily away. Two people, flailing in the dark, trying to find one another again – but will they?

“The Starling” is a movie that can’t quite settle into a groove. For long stretches, we have a story of two people struggling with the consequences of loss, people who are both deeply wounded and unable to come to terms with their grief. And then, for reasons that are unclear, the narrative is punctuated by goofball exchanges and slapstick comedy. Again, that sort of back-and-forth can work under the right circumstances. These just aren’t those circumstances.

The primary issue is that it often feels like there are multiple movies happening here. You’ve got the main narrative, the story of a couple dealing with heartbreaking loss. But there are these incongruous subplots – the war of attrition with the bird, the oddball not-quite-therapy with a veterinarian – that undermine that primary narrative. It’s like putting together a puzzle with pieces from more than one box – you might be able to jam them in there, but the final product isn’t going to look right.

Theodore Melfi is a perfectly capable director – his last two features (“Hidden Figures” and “St. Vincent”) were both solidly sentimental offerings. Unfortunately, Mark Harris’s script leaves a lot to be desired – opaque when it should be transparent, tonally confused, oddly paced and constructed. The muddled script makes it difficult for all involved.

That includes (the wildly overqualified) cast. Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd are a talented pair, with a fair amount of performative chemistry. They click. And when the two of them get a chance to cook, the movie comes closest to being the best version of itself. Both are surprisingly capable of moments of moving vulnerability. Alas, those moments are too few. Instead, we get numerous sequences involving McCarthy engaged in farcical combat with a clearly-CGIed bird, which … look, it’s just not what you want. You might laugh, but out of surprise and confusion more than genuine mirth.

The supporting cast is great, though underutilized across the board. Kline is as charming as ever as the therapist-turned/veterinarian, but his moments of connection with McCarthy’s character are also undermined by unnecessary jokes; I recognize the desire for levity, but it almost always feels just a little … off. Quinn and Olyphant are talented actors who are given a single note to play; they’re pros and handle their business, but they’re basically placeholders. And that’s a better fate than is received by Daveed Diggs and Skyler Gisondo, both of whom appear in just a couple of scenes; they’re recognizable enough that it’s distracting to see them given nothing to do.

“The Starling” has the seeds of a good movie. More than one, maybe. Unfortunately, the way in which this was executed simply doesn’t pan out. Had a few things been different, this film might have soared, but here, its wings have been clipped.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 September 2021 11:11

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