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Review: Melissa McCarthy tearjerker 'The Starling' never takes flight

Courtesy of Netflix


Packed with dozens of visual metaphors, sappy performances, and unrealized characters, “The Starling” sees Theodore Melfi, a filmmaker who used the tearjerker formula to great success in “St Vincent” and Hidden Figures,” taking a serious step down in terms of career clout. His previous films understood character development and told inspirational stories, whereas this Melissa McCarthy dramedy, which sat on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays since 2005, hedges its bets on audiences' willingness to see past countless narrative flaws and inconsistent tones.

McCarthy, a fine and hilarious actress in the correct role, can’t land the right balance as Lily, a grocery store manager holding down the fort at home following the death of her infant daughter, and the admittance of her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd) into a mental health facility. Lily makes the hour drive for weekly therapy sessions with Jack, a grade school teacher who hasn’t handled the death of his daughter as well as she has, but the results rarely make progress. You can tell Lily’s ready to burst and is recommended by Jack’s therapist to look up Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) who, she hilariously finds out, actually stopped practicing mental health and is now a veterinarian.

The early scenes and quick witted banter between Kline and McCarthy is fluid enough to where you imagine this might go somewhere deep and pick at the root cause of Lily’s struggles. It doesn’t and Melfi instead packs the second leg of “The Starling” with cheap metaphors on the value of life and recovery. An earnest message appealing enough to keep the movie watchable, but when underscored by coffee shop favorites The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Brandi Carlile, the eyerolls are swift. The entire supporting cast, Timothy Olyphant playing Lily’s wisecracking boss; Loretta Divine howling and screeching as a patient alongside Jack; and Daveed Digs as an art therapist, never feel like a cohesive part of the film either.

Then there’s the mystery of the title, which comes from several interactions Lily has with a Starling bird making a nest in her garden, which she started as a coping mechanism after Jack left. When Kline delivers a Hallmarky speech in the vein of “Starlings never leave their family behind,” it’s clear the film has no interest in exploring the real cause and effects of mental health and confirms what we already knew, Jack and Lily eventually will come out the other side.

To their credit, O’Dowd and McCarthy find silvers of emotion amid a screenplay built on formulaic troupes. When the movie briefly stops spinning its wheels, and the characters grieve like actual humans and not scripted robots, the emotional core of “The Starling” grows considerably. But the film wants to bake its cake and eat it too and all narrative progress gets soured after wishy-washy monologues, clearly borrowed from a self-help book that‘s been collecting dust on a library shelf, populate most of Matt Harris’ script. This one is for the birds.

Grade: C-

THE STARLING opens in select theaters Friday, September 17th and debuts on Netflix Friday, September 24th


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