CAST: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn, Emily Tremaine, Scott MacArthur, Elisabeth Röhm, Verónica Falcón, Jimmy O. Yang
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
BASICALLY…: A grieving wife (McCarthy) becomes obsessed with getting rid of a combative Starling from her garden…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Talk about a case of rotten luck: Melissa McCarthy, an excellent and comedically-gifted actress, has appeared in two films for Netflix this year, and neither one of them is worthy of her natural talents (which is extra stinging because one of those films was written and directed by her husband Ben Falcone).
However, while The Starling – directed by Theodore Melfi, who previously worked with McCarthy on St. Vincent – is nowhere near as awful as Thunder Force, it’s certainly a more disappointing outing because there is certainly a lot more talent and good nature involved in the making of it, but not even they can save a movie that is ruptured by a wildly inconsistent tone and cloying, all-too-basic emotional platform.
The Starling stars McCarthy as Lilly Maynard, a woman whose life is in tatters following the unexpected death of her infant daughter Katie. Her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), is staying in a mental facility following an attempted suicide, leaving Lilly alone to deal with her own grief. One day, she starts being bothered by a small CGI starling which attacks her when she tries to tend to her dried-up garden, and soon a war of wits unfolds between woman and bird – however, advice from psychiatrist-turned-vet Larry Fine (Kevin Kline – and yes, they throw in a Three Stooges reference the very first time his character’s name is mentioned) leads Lilly to realise that her obsession with getting rid of the starling stems from her own feelings of guilt, which she must overcome in order to finally move on.
The problem with this movie is that it wants to have it both ways: not only does it wish to be this tender, emotional drama about the grieving process within parents who go through an unspeakable loss, but it also desires to be a slapstick-heavy physical comedy about a woman’s obsession with killing a mischievous little bird. It’s like if you mixed Terms of Endearment with Mousehunt, which right there should give you an indication of how much of a tonal whiplash The Starling manages to create; you will have scenes of actors delivering gut-wrenching monologues about their depression, followed immediately by scenes of Melissa McCarthy, wearing a football helmet, being whacked around by a territorial little bird who proceeds to poop all over an owl statue. The constant swapping of tones is insane in this movie, leaving you unsure as to what emotions you should be feeling since it rarely allows enough time for either mood to settle in before moving swiftly to the next. It’s much more of a freefall here, which makes for a baffling and oddly tone-deaf viewing experience.
The only way to really see if The Starling works is to separate the wildly different tones and judge them individually, but as it turns out the film still falters from not just its overly sentimental drama but also its light and unbelievable moments of comedy. The script is heavily reliant on the fact that talking about dead babies for most of the running time is enough to drive anyone to tears, which it accomplishes not because the film makes it so, but because talking about dead babies is a very sad concept, and nothing in the world can make that any less of a fact, even when the topic is heavily exploited at several dramatic junctions here. Then you have the more comedic elements, which largely revolve around McCarthy’s attempts to get rid of the titular bird, intersected with Kevin Kline’s wise sage of a character who’s mainly there just to tell the protagonist what every little metaphor in this movie actually means. The result in both instances is a comedy/drama where the emotional moments feel unearned and the odd detours into slapstick territory even less so, since the script is so light on substance and the filmmaking feels so squeaky-clean that any sense of grit or even realism in its heavy themes become swept up in a tonal tornado of insanity.
The only thing which carries the movie are the performances, which might legitimately stand out if the movie had a lot more focus on itself. Melissa McCarthy is very good in the film, easily sympathetic while also selling the numerous sad monologues she is given, while Chris O’Dowd does what he can with a conceptually flawed character who represents a very “movie” depiction of severe mental health, and Kevin Kline is strong as always, although something about his performance perhaps suggests that the filmmakers really wanted Bill Murray for this part (making it a complete St. Vincent reunion with McCarthy and O’Dowd also on board), but when he declined they just told Kline to act like Murray probably would.
Unfortunately, you still have a movie that is wildly all over the place, fluttering about like the starling of the title, but never finding a comfortable enough branch to nest upon.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Starling is a strange failure with an insanely mismatched tone of hard-hitting drama and slapstick-heavy comedy, which not even the noble efforts of Melissa McCarthy can fully save.