by Hope Madden
A quick synopsis of The Starling, the new drama from Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi, brims with potential, offers an appealingly messy notion.
Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) are suffering, silently and separately, about a year after the death of their baby girl. Jack waits out his grief in an institution while Lilly tries to tough it out on her own. Eventually she decides to plant a garden, but a territorial, dive-bombing starling makes that difficult. She turns to psychologist/veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) for help.
That’s a lot to unpack, but when the core theme is grief, complications are welcome. Hollywood tales of grief and relief tend to be too tidy, the metaphors too clean, while the unruly emotion being presented is rarely tidy or clean in real life. A good mess is called for.
Unfortunately, The Starling is not a good mess. Just a regular old mess.
Matt Harris’s script never digs below the surface — not even when Lilly is gardening. Melfi relies on the score to represent emotional weight rather than leaning on his more-than-capable cast to depict that grief. An anemic comic-relief subplot at Lilly’s gig managing a grocery store feels wildly out of place and wastes real talent. (Timothy Olyphant has four lines – funny lines delivered via a character that should be on a TV sitcom, not in this movie.)
O’Dowd — who was the absolute picture of grief in John Michael McDonagh’s masterful 2014 film Calvary – fares the best with the material. Even though his character’s resolution feels unearned, there is heft in the performance that allows human emotion to overcome a weakly written character.
McCarthy suffers most, though. Unable to ad lib her way toward elevating a drama, she sinks beneath the unrealistic banter between Lilly and Kline’s Dr. Larry. Kline is solid, strangely aided by Harris’s weak characterization, which allows the actor to find a groove that conveys more than what’s on the page.
Moments of genuine emotion punctuate the film and, while welcome, they mainly serve as a reminder of what The Starling had the potential to become.