Dir: Theodore Melfi. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Kevin Kline. Cert 12, 103 mins
As Netflix drama The Starling reaches its emotional climax, clinically depressed, grieving father Jack (Chris O’Dowd) finally pours his heart out. He talks of his infant daughter’s recent death from sudden infant death syndrome (Sids) and the envy he feels towards his own, more resilient wife Lily (Melissa McCarthy). But allow me to add one crucial annotation to that description – Jack, choking back the tears, introduces the words “my wife” in a thick, Borat accent. How are we meant to react to this? Laugh? Is this the spoonful of sugar to help the melodrama go down? Or is it a rueful joke from someone who still finds processing emotions to be a uniquely alien thing? I’d be inclined to believe the latter if the joke weren’t so hackneyed by now that it’s only ever parroted by the most conceited of frat boys. Or if the sickly sweet violins of Benjamin Wallfisch’s maudlin score didn’t kick in seconds later.
Director Theodore Melfi has made perfectly pleasant, audience-rousing fare before, like the Nasa-set period piece Hidden Figures or St Vincent, also starring McCarthy alongside Bill Murray. But something’s gone terribly awry here. A wrong turn was taken. And The Starling has come out the other side an utterly bizarre, tonal misfire that fumbles through several ideas before implying that it’s perfectly OK to berate the suicidal for being so suicidal.
After a brief prelude, the film finds Jack in a programme at the “New Horizons” psychiatric facility. He’s been there quite some time. The expectation is that Lily will return to normal life at home after their shared loss, having not sought out or been encouraged to seek therapy at any level. Thankfully, that turns out not to be an issue, since therapy comes to her in the form of a particularly aggressive CGI bird, who spends much of the film’s runtime dive-bombing Lily and serving as a clunky metaphor for the grieving process. What’s mildly absurd about The Starling is that this isn’t the first film that Netflix has acquired this year about a woman’s trauma recovery being kickstarted by an avian intruder – it already has the significantly better Penguin Bloom on its streaming service, which features Naomi Watts as a woman who learns to adjust to life with paralysis through caring for an injured magpie. It’s just as aggressively manipulative in the doling out of life lessons, but the film at least benefits from a flesh-and-blood bird and a grounded performance from its lead.
The Starling, meanwhile, is the kid making fart noises at the funeral. Not only are the jokes in Matt Harris’s script badly timed, but they’re also largely incomprehensible – there’s an extended bit about a leg-humping dog and several caricatures of the mentally ill that all feel like half-remembered approximations of Oscar bait. McCarthy and O’Dowd certainly don’t seem to have any better clarity on whether they should be playing comedy or tragedy. The pair will treat moments of apparent sincerity as punchlines and vice versa.
Only Kevin Kline seems to have any grasp on what he’s doing. He plays a vet named Larry Fine (just like the member of the Three Stooges, as is remarked), who’s roped into Lily’s struggles through an utterly improbable piece of miscommunication. The actor offers just the right amount of ironic detachment to sail through his scenes without overcooking them. He knows something the rest of The Starling clearly doesn’t.