There is nothing inherently wrong with tonal variance in a movie. Under the right circumstances, this can help to cast a wider net in terms of the themes and ideas being explored. A well-executed balance of laughs and tears can result in something greater than the sum of its parts.
If it IS NOT executed well, however, you could end up with an ineffective hodgepodge.
This is the case of the new Netflix drama “The Starling”. The film – which is directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd – never seems able to find any tonal consistency, punctuating its dramatic family intentions with avian-flavored slapstick moments. Again, it is not that such hesitation CANNOT work, but here it certainly does not.
This does not mean that the participants are not acting in good faith. In truth, McCarthy and O’Dowd – along with a number of supporting players – are pushing hard. It’s just that the script and the general lack of emotional consistency undermine those efforts, resulting in something that feels like a lifetime movie crossed with a Looney Tunes short.
When we meet the Maynards – Lily (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) – they are a happy couple, deeply in love. They have just welcomed their first child, a girl named Katie, into their life. They turn a room into a nursery and are usually excited about what the future holds.
A year later, everything has changed. The tragic loss of their daughter has left them each broken in their own way. Jack is most obviously affected – his inability to cope has resulted in him being admitted to a mental health facility. On the surface, Lily is handling things better – she’s always at home, always at her job – but she also struggles. The conflicting feelings between them boil over during Lily’s weekly visits to the facility to see Jack.
One particularly controversial session leads Institutional Therapist Regina (Kimberly Quinn) to recommend that Lily speak to a former colleague of hers. Reluctantly, Lily agrees to do so, only to find that said former colleague, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) has changed fields and become a vet. Despite this, the two begin a kind of informal therapeutic relationship.
Meanwhile, Lily tries to cope with the slow proliferation of her home’s lawn and garden, only to find that a bird, a starling, has apparently decided that Lily’s yard is the bird’s territory, leading to an actively antagonistic dynamic between the two – one that quickly ventures into the realm of absurdity.
As Lily searches for a way to deal with her feelings, Jack drifts in dark directions. As Lily talks to Larry, gets harassed by her boss Travis (Timothy Olyphant), and fights a territorial bird, Jack’s sadness escalates to the point where he pushes Lily away. Two people, struggling in the dark, trying to find each other – but will they?
“The Starling” is a movie that can’t quite settle into a groove. For long periods of time, we have the story of two people grappling with the consequences of loss, people both deeply hurt and unable to cope with their grief. And then, for unclear reasons, the story is punctuated by awkward exchanges and slapstick comedy. Again, this kind of back and forth can work under the right circumstances. These are just not the circumstances.
The main problem is that we often have the impression that there are several films taking place here. You have the main story, the story of a couple struggling with heartbreaking loss. But there are those incongruous subplots – the war of attrition with the bird, the not entirely eccentric therapy with a vet – that undermine that main narrative. It’s like putting together a puzzle with pieces from more than one box – you might be able to get them stuck in it, but the end product won’t look right.
Theodore Melfi is a perfectly capable director – his last two feature films (“Hidden Figures” and “St. Vincent”) were both deeply sentimental offerings. Sadly, Mark Harris’ script leaves a lot to be desired – opaque when it should be transparent, tonal muddled, oddly paced and constructed. The confusing script makes it difficult for everyone involved.
This includes (the wildly overqualified cast). Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd are a talented couple, with a healthy dose of performative chemistry. They click. And when the two have the chance to cook, the movie comes closest to being the best version of itself. Both are surprisingly capable of moments of moving vulnerability. Alas, these moments are too few. Instead, we get a lot of footage involving McCarthy engaged in a grotesque fight with a clearly CGI bird, which… look, that’s just not what you want. You might laugh, but out of surprise and confusion more than out of genuine joy.
The supporting cast is excellent, although underutilized overall. Kline is still as charming as the therapist turned vet, but her moments of connection with McCarthy’s character are also plagued by unnecessary jokes; I recognize the desire for lightness, but it almost always feels a little … off. Quinn and Olyphant are talented actors who only have one note to play; they are the pros who run their business, but they are essentially placeholders. And that’s a better spell than that received by Daveed Diggs and Skyler Gisondo, both of whom appear in just a few scenes; they are recognizable enough that it is distracting to see them having nothing to do.
“The Starling” has the seeds of a good movie. More than one, maybe. Unfortunately, the way it was done just doesn’t work. If some things had been different this movie could have soared, but here its wings have been cut off.
[2 out of 5]