Producers: Theodore Melfi, Kim Quinn, Chris Parker and Dylan Sellers Director: Theodore Melfi Screenplay: Matt Harris Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Kimberly Quinn, Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine, Rosalind Chao and Ravi Kapoor Distributor: Netflix
Most tearjerkers aim to force viewers to reach for a tissue; this one is so manipulative its aim seems to be to force you to bawl into something the size of a beach towel. But the extent of its shamelessness makes it likely that “The Starling” will leave you dry-eyed.
Melissa McCarthy, tapping once more into her skill in drama as well as comedy, and likably hangdog Chris O’Dowd play Lilly and Jack Maynard, a loving couple who are introduced painting a mural on the wall of their infant daughter’s nursery. But that cutesy portrait of marital joy abruptly turns into grief: a year later, both are suffering the depression that comes from losing a child to SIDS. Jack’s is so deep that it led him to attempt suicide, which is why he’s in a psychiatric hospital. Lilly remains on the outside, puttering about their large rural house, clerking in a big-box grocery and visiting her husband when she can, but she is obviously suffering from trauma too.
Among the mundane tasks Lilly undertakes while hoping for Jack to improve and return home is selling off their dead child’s crib—or, rather, exchanging it for a used recliner—and working on her vegetable garden. While she’s doing that, the titular bird—which we’ve seen, in rather poor CGI footage, collecting stuff to build its nest—attacks her. They’re both trying to construct, or reconstruct, a home, you see, but are having trouble sharing the same turf.
Regina (Kimberly Quinn), Jack’s counselor, recognizes that Lilly needs help, too, and recommends that she talk to one Larry Fine (Kevin Kline)—cue the obligatory Three Stooges joke. Fine was a psychiatrist, and apparently a good one, but eventually he found the work unsatisfying, and so became a veterinarian. That’s certainly fortuitous, because not only can he—after some prodding—counsel her about her loss, but also advise her about dealing with the starling. (Among other bits of information, he tells her about the bird Mozart prized as a pet—a fact Lyanda Lynn Haupt used as the springboard for her best-selling book.)
In time Fine helps Lilly cope with her situation, she assists him in coming to terms with his own self-doubt, and she reaches an accommodation with the bird after nursing it back to health. (If you remember the “Opie the Birdman” episode of the old Andy Griffith Show, you’ll know where this plot thread is headed.) Though less time is devoted to it, Jack, a teacher by trade, also makes halting progress, reconnection with children being an important element in his recovery.
McCarthy and O’Dowd both give this script their full effort, and so does a restrained Kline; but while Skyler Gisondo, as Lilly’s likable young co-worker, and Ravi Kapoor, as Jack’s therapist, have a few nice moments, other supporting players—Timothy Olyphant as Lilly’s cranky boss, Daveed Diggs as a hospital attendant—are wasted in throwaway roles. Loretta Devine is called upon to provide some comic relief as a fellow patient of Jack’s, but what she’s asked to do is more embarrassing than humorous.
The technical contributions, save for the mediocre CGI in some of the bird sequences, are mostly professional, with Lawrence Sher’s cinematography and Stephanie Hamilton’s production design good if not exceptional. But the deliberate editing by Peter Teschner and Matt Friedman adds to sense of heaviness brought to the project by writer Matt Harris and director Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent,” “Hidden Figures”), and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, with its obviously calculated emotional triggers, is intrusive, and the frequent montages set to songs by Brandi Carlile and others make matters worse.
One assumes that everyone involved intended “The Starling” to be touching, but instead it is unbearably cloying, a maudlin misfire.