Whenever I’m in earshot of someone disparaging film critics, no matter how mildly, I defend my line of work with a question: “Have you ever seen a movie that made you laugh or cry but you knew in your heart was not a good movie?” Inevitably, they answer in the affirmative, to which I respond, “Well, then you’re a film critic.” The Starling is a film that will make critics out of us all. It’s shallow, mawkish, cloying, and clumsy, but it occasionally succeeds in spite of its deficiencies. After all, life can be mawkish, too and there are moments that will touch the tender parts of your heart. The problem is that it just keeps poking at them.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) with all the subtlety of a bird crapping on your head, The Starling is the story of Laurie (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd), a married couple driven apart by a family tragedy. Jack is recovering in a mental hospital from the death of their infant child, while Laurie is still on the outside, trying to hold it together. It’s not going well. Her work is suffering, and at home, she has stumbled into an adversarial relationship with a bird that dive-bombs her whenever she dares step foot into her garden.
The titular bird becomes an object of fixation, and her relationship with it measures her progress through the stages of grief, an idea spelled out several times throughout the film just in case any viewers are new to metaphors. Laurie holds impromptu therapy sessions with Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline), a shrink-turned-veterinarian to whom she inexplicably gets referred. In between, she visits Jack in the hospital and tries in vain to repair their broken marriage. There’s a lot going on, and none of it seems to be happening in the same movie. Kline’s warm, earnest performance indicates a gentle story of healing from trauma, while O’Dowd stops in the middle of an overbearing climactic monologue to do a Borat impression. Yes, really.
The Starling would have been wise to simplify its story, but instead it spreads its wings too far, venturing into territories it can’t find its way home from. Just one example: While its portrayal of grief has moments of true insight, its understanding of the mental health profession is laughably shallow. We are told that Dr. Larry was once in line to take over the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins, but his fortune-cookie wisdom (“Sometimes we push people away just to see if they’ll come back,” he tells her after one session) borders on malpractice, even for a veterinarian. Then there’s the curious case of Daveed Diggs, who shows up in two scenes as a counselor who doesn’t understand why seeing a bunch of kids’ stuff in an art classroom would emotionally trigger a guy whose child just died (“Must be leftover from when this was a school,” he says. OK). Not to mention that nobody in the entire hospital notices that Jack is pocketing his medication instead of swallowing it.
The Starling misses these details because it is only focused on where it’s headed. It has such a fixed idea of its destination that it refuses to let its story breathe, its characters evolve into real people, and its simple truths rise to the surface. Whenever a moment emerges that could offer some complexity—the central relationship between Laurie and Jack is primed for that, actually—Melfi cues up the strings on the soundtrack so that the viewer knows precisely what to feel. Don’t worry about life’s ambiguities, those notes seem to say. Just cry when we tell you to cry.
But cry I did, and I have a hard time completely writing off a film that can summon such powerful emotions in me. How did this happen to me? Maybe it’s McCarthy and O’Dowd, who seem to be working from the actors-playing-grief section of their handbook but are still such innately sympathetic performers that it almost doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the material itself; animals, broken marriages, and grief are a potent combination. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that after sitting through this mess of overused cliches and twee metaphors, the emotional climax that mercifully concludes The Starling benefits from an unintended corollary. It’s a relief that these characters are going to get back to their lives, but an even bigger one that I’m going to get back to mine.
The Starling premieres on Friday on Netflix.