The Starling. 2021
Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn, Veronica Falcón, Scott MacArthur, Emily Tremaine, Cynthy Wu, Tom Everett, Elisabeth Röhm, and Edi Patterson.
After Lilly suffers a loss, a combative starling takes nest beside her quiet home. The feisty bird taunts and attacks the grief-stricken Lilly. On her journey to expel the starling, she rediscovers her will to live and capacity for love.
On paper, Melissa McCarthy’s wisecrack humor and being stuck in the anger stage of grieving probably do make for a winning combination. In execution, The Starling couldn’t have gone awry anymore. As such, it’s difficult to choose whether to start with the relentlessly offputting cloying tone or the major subplot disease a CGI bird frequently attacking Melissa McCarthy while, as a coping mechanism, trying to nurture her garden.
Considering Melissa McCarthy has collaborated with director Theodore Melfi before (St. Vincent, the film that announced the talent as much more than a comedic personality), it’s even more baffling how split the filmmaker is between giving her endless monologues and dialogue exchanges that, together with an aggressively schmaltzy soundtrack, are designed to wring tears rather than earning them, and terrible slapstick humor involving the titular starling gliding into her forehead and knocking her off a ladder face-first into the dirt. And if screenwriter Matt Harris is the real culprit that couldn’t decide what the hell to do with this narrative, Theodore Melfi should have known that those clashing tones were never going to gel inside this particular story.
Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, who is nonetheless committed no matter how many times the film embarrasses her) is struggling to move on a year after the death of her infant from sudden infant death syndrome. She currently works at a supermarket (working in the loosest sense of the term given how distant she appears on the job) while making routine visits to her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, fine in the role even if his material also stinks) at the mental health facility he has voluntarily checked himself into while struggling with depression. Following the loss of their child, Jack tried to commit suicide.
This is also a movie where, when Lilly is not doing either of those things, birds are pestering her during her therapeutic garden work, prompting her to explore various avenues of getting rid of them, including trying to kill them. Eventually, assisting with bettering her husband and getting rid of the birds pushes her into crossing paths with veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline), a former psychological therapist that gave up to help out animals instead. The point is that everyone in The Starling is going through some kind of ordeal, and it’s usually discussed in shameless on-the-nose metaphors or flashbacks explaining the sentimentality behind certain objects. All of it is cringe-worthy.
What makes The Starling so frustrating to watch is that the story the filmmakers are trying to tell is not necessarily bad; it’s just drowned in syrup to the point where even situations that should make a viewer sad have no effect. Jack’s scenes fare slightly better, closed-off and attempting to meditate through some arts and crafts. The juxtaposition between how Lilly and Jack are handling the loss of their baby girl is also intriguing, and they do admittedly share a couple of strong conversations, but the rest of The Starling is either a cornball speech or a lame joke that doesn’t land.
The film also features supporting turns from several notable actors that are sometimes easy to spot (Timothy Olyphant as the supermarket boss and Skyler Gisondo as one of the co-workers), but there are other major names like Daveed Diggs that barely click. Judging from the quality of The Starling, maybe it’s a good thing some of the most recognizable faces have such small and hardly noticeable roles. If nothing else, I’m sure they didn’t mind getting less time in this travesty than a flying CGI-bird metaphor (it’s obvious what the birds are really doing in the area and painfully hokey).
Anyway, it’s also fair to say that the filmmakers also knew what they were making with The Starling, since Lilly finally responds to a cheesy metaphor with the line “real subtle.” I’m not making this review subtle, either; The Starling is hot garbage save for whenever Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd are interacting with one another.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com