Let’s get this out of the way: The eponymous bird at the center of Theodore Melfi’s cloying, if still tender-hearted dramedy “The Starling” isn’t real, though the emotions (and often, the quite literal pain) he stirs in the people around him is.
If that’s not the set-up for a quirky mid-budget feel-good feature, well, what is? The kind of throwback dramedy that streamers should be making these days — because the studios sure aren’t — the Melissa McCarthy-starring film will likely charm the feathers off its audience when it hits Netflix, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. It is, however, something few contemporary films dare to be: both satisfying and self-contained.
There’s no wider Starling Expanded Universe out there — bad news for a bossy blackbird that appears in the film’s opening credits — and while the finality of the film’s conclusion doesn’t entirely feel earned (or, frankly, even that possible), there’s something charming about this fairy tale-esque story that knows how to end on a “happily ever after.” First, however, there is a very angry starling, a very sad couple, and also Kevin Kline as a therapist-turned-vet, which is an unconventional enough career path, but certainly one befitting the needs of any quirky dramedy worth its stripes.
“Birds are tricky,” Jack Maynard (Chris O’Dowd) tells his wife Lilly (McCarthy) as the film opens, and while that hammy line will prove to be very true sometime later, for now, Jack is talking about painted birds, fake ones, the kind of cuties adorning a wall they are making for their charming baby Katie. Everything is going wonderfully for the Maynards, so it’s a real kick in the pants when Matt Harris’ script jolts us a year into the future, with Katie gone, Lilly barely muddling through, and Jack in a mental health facility. Send in the birds, please.
While the film attempts to thread a tricky needle between absolute drama and wacky comedy — dramedy! — Harris’ script is actually at its best when leaning more into the story’s tougher stuff. Lilly’s support system, which mostly consists of her strange co-workers at the local grocery store (Timothy Olyphant as her cowboy-ish manager, Skyler Gisondo as her adorably dim right-hand man Dickie), is believably unable to fully understand her grief, especially a year after the tragedy that took Katie. And Jack, while put up at a deeply weird facility, somehow both whimsical and off-putting all at once, is working through some real shit. (Scenes in which O’Dowd gets to dig more deeply into Jack’s depression and how it makes him feel are some of the film’s best, even if they are also the most painful.)
A folksy, hey-ho-heavy soundtrack featuring songs from The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, Nate Ruess, and Brandi Carlile never met a head-smacker of a lyrical choice it didn’t like (one early jam tells us to “take some time / clear my mind / find another reason why” and, yes, OK, we get it), and speaks to the film’s obsession with spot-on metaphors and line deliveries. And that’s all before we meet the bird who will change everything for Lilly, though perhaps not in the ways some might expect. Eventually, however, the film gets away from its more obvious choices and takes a few risks.
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