Melissa McCarthy and Theodore Melfi have shared similarities in their bodies of work. Both getting their names and work known through comedic roots, both would find themselves soon after at the center of not just critical praise but also Oscar nominations for their individual works in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Hidden Figures, respectively. Hearing that the pair would be returning to set together with a new project was naturally exciting as a result and seemed like a possible pathway for another standout project for both parties but sadly, The Starling ultimately failed to meet those high expectations in really any sense.
The Starling introduces us to a couple named Lily (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd). The two are joyful and hopeful as they prepare for their child to be born but suddenly things shift. There is a time jump and Lily and Jack are not only no longer together but are also both on the verge of breakdown. They have lost their child tragically with Jack running from his problems and Lily left confused and alone. Will they be able to find peace, or will they be doomed to a purgatory of complex pain forever?
With this setup, The Starling feels as if it could be one of the most emotional films of the year. This is everything one could want from an emotional relationship drama, yet The Starling has other goals as it refuses to embrace the potential of what it could be. Rather than playing into the complexity and tragedy of its story. The Starling instead embraces melodrama and comedy becoming a shell of what it could have been. The film feels the need to explore its rather captivating emotions through strangely cliched and confusing means.
The inner struggles of Melissa McCarthy when it comes to her relationship with this trauma and her fight to find a way to move on are explained through the metaphor of a bird that lives outside of her house and attacks her. No matter what she tries to do, she can’t beat the bird in fighting and must find a way to move on in a more mature way. While it doesn’t help that the visual effects used to bring the bird to life are rather awful, this also feels like a simple reduction of what this drama could have been and is a rather uninteresting route to take. The Starling is filled with storytelling choices like this such as a returning focus to Lily’s job at a supermarket that ultimately does very little to enhance the final viewing experience or the film’s emotional gravitas. Considering how simple these expressions are to understand, it almost comes off as patronizing when the film introduces a therapist turned veterinarian named Larry (Academy Award winner Kevin Kline) who befriends Lily and largely acts as a stand-in for her to outwardly and directly express what she is feeling as if the audience couldn’t catch on otherwise.
This is particularly disappointing as the character of Lily is quite layered and easily could have belonged to a more impactful and nuanced feature. Not only does she feel her own array of inner emotions being the mother of this child and being directly connected to the tragedy but also must act as a support for Jack who has run away from the situation and refuses to converse with his wife. While it is clear that Jack is acting in the interest of his own survival with him not being able to accept what has happened and he is making respectable choices like checking into therapy rather than something destructive like turning to the bottle, the film doesn’t ignore that ultimately, he is acting selfish and is preventing Lily from finding closure. While Lily doesn’t want to push Jack and cause his spiral to worsen, she also needs to for her own sanity. She continually reaches out and tries to connect with Jack but can only get so far on her own. It becomes clear that Jack needs to make the effort to move on with most of his arc being this journey. Even if the two parties are separated for most of the film, this relationship drama ends up being the most poignant piece of The Starling. There is no good guy or bad guy within this conflict but simply two lost adults trying to keep their heads above water. While the occasional scene will begin to effectively portray this dynamic, the vast majority of the film lets it down.
The film largely suffers from similar issues regarding the emotional intelligence of its various scenes and developments. The film clearly wants to appeal to wide audiences and keep more of a comedic edge leading to a film that is working against its natural story. Almost every scene of vulnerability or depth is undercut by the film’s out-of-place humor and disappointing dialogue. Multiple conversations of raw emotional depth will randomly start to include random inflictions and small additions meant for comedy such as one of the key emotional moments of the climax where Jack is reflecting on what his wife means to him but then in the middle of his monologue out of nowhere gives a seemingly Borat impression randomly saying “My Wife” in Borat’s accent only to then move on as if the monologue was perfectly normal. These attempts to blend comedy and emotion come off as awkward and distracting. While there are some scenes within the third act specifically that begin to overcome this strange mindset by the film but it is far too little too late.
When it comes to any of these scenes that do end up breaking through and leaving a bit of a bite, it is clear that the film has to thank the performances for its results. Both Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd carry the weight of their characters rather well with a conviction and inspiration present in their line delivery. You can feel their individual pain and anger but also sense their understanding and empathy for each other. Even though this event has been an act of diastrophism for their ability to communicate, they still ultimately care for each other. McCarthy especially has to bring Lily’s determination and necessity to help Jack get back on his feet and even though the current state of the relationship is destructive, one can absolutely feel the deeper justification for her sticking it through.
The Starling is a conflicted film. It sadly works against its own success with a consistent misplaced focus. For anyone expecting the film to reach even a shadow of what projects like Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Hidden Figures accomplished disappointment feels inevitable. Instead of being a major awards player or breakout hit of the year, The Starling feels destined to get lost to the Netflix algorithm and fly awkwardly away into the distance, never to be heard from again.
The Starling is currently streaming on Netflix.