If you can get all worked up about a somewhat aggressive little bird that, to the annoyance of homeowner Melissa McCarthy, has decided to take up residence in a tree on her property, you’re welcome to The Starling, an astonishingly treacly film that’s meant to be inspirational but is something close to agony to sit through. Mawkish and reliant upon platitudes in the absence of genuine feeling and anything resembling filmmaking style, director Theodore Melfi’s first feature since the massively successful Hidden Figures in 2016 is a testament to banality that Netflix decided was worth $20 million to acquire. The Starling made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival and if something like this this is now considered worthy of a major festival slot, the world has changed. Can we blame Covid for this too?
Working in a stylistic vein that might be described as bumptious sentimentality, screenwriter Matt Harris can virtually be detected pushing the emotional buttons behind a curtain much like a 21st century Wizard of Oz. It cannot be denied that selecting little starlings as the big villains of your story is a novel choice; no crows they. But that’s about as far as the filmmakers’ imaginations go in this case, so bereft is the story of dramatic edge or emotional insight. Hasbro cartoons have more suspense.
Employing a very wide brush and squishy musical backgrounding, Melfi tells the story of a middle-aged couple who have recently lost a baby. McCarthy is 51 and the script oddly never mentions whether or not her character, Lilly Maynard, had been attempting to bear a child for years or only recently became motivated. Her somewhat younger husband, grade-school art teacher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), is nothing but supportive. But we never get even the slightest backstory about how long they’ve been together, whether they’ve been married before or other elemental details of arguable relevance.
The couple lives in a very comfortable inherited house in a small northern California town (their 510 area code is referenced) where Lilly works as a convenience store clerk. But she’s beginning to lose her grip. The couple’s main outings are to group therapy sessions at a mental health facility. What’s bugging Lilly more than anything these days are the obnoxious starlings that have made themselves at home on her property. The film’s idea of a big laugh is to have one of the starlings poop on the plastic owl Lilly has bought for “protection.” When one actually dies, she buries it to the accompaniment of sappy music and a God-perspective’s overhead shot.
Sound exciting so far? Well, just you wait. Along with now putting on a football helmet whenever she dares to go outside, Lilly decides she needs to consult a shrink about the bird invasion (where is Hitchcock when we need him?) and enlists the assistance of a therapist, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline). One’s hopes are momentarily aroused that a sharp-witted outsider might cut through the b.s. surrounding the matter of the invasive starlings. One dares go one step further in imagining that the good doctor will shake these dull and drab characters out of their self-absorbed daze and get on with life. But, no, he indulges them, even joins them in their mild-mannered, dim-witted, cliché-embracing approach to life.
Still battling those pesky little starlings, klutzy Lilly one day picks up a stone, hits a flying bird dead-on and presents the good doctor with proof. The big third act suspense hinges upon whether the injured winged one can be saved, which, in a relativistic sort of way, will suggest whether or not this blighted couple might also find its way back to a productive life. Quel symbolism. And oh, the suspense!
The Starling exists in some fairy tale world where cluelessness is benign, patience is unending and people have nothing better to do than to obsess over harmless creatures that share a sliver of the same universe. The director spells everything out in boldface capital letters and then underlines it. It’s two hours you’ll never get back. There must be better ways to recover from loss than are on display here.
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