“The Starling” is a forlorn parable about crippling grief and the tragedies in life that are beyond our control. It has an expertly comic cast and is based on a former “black list” script — one deemed a hot Hollywood property, years ago.
And it just lies there, like a bird that’s flown into a window — sad but not quite achieving tears, deadpan but never quite comic.
Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd are a happy couple when we meet them, a pair of well-matched smart alecks riffing away at each other as they paint a forest scene in their baby daughter’s nursery.
A year later, Lilly is “distracted” and empty back at work, wearing out the patience of her supermarket boss (Timothy Olyphant) with her weekly “I need to leave early” needs. She has to drive to group therapy sessions at a mental health facility.
Their daughter died. Neither is handling it well, and the hospital is where Jack is. He’s medicated, but not taking his pills, drowning in morose, impatient with attempts to make him feel better and help them both “move on.” His therapist (Kimberly Quinn) sees their mutual contempt for these group get togethers. She can pass on all the warnings about “emotional triggers” she wants, but Jack isn’t getting better and Lilly seems pretty pissed.
“Have you done anything with Katie’s things?” No, she hasn’t. Nobody’s doing anything. Nobody’s getting better.
So the therapist suggests a name, a Dr. Larry Fine.
“Like from ‘The Three Stooges?'”
“You know, it’ll be nice to see someone before you have to see someone.”
But Regina the therapist must’ve made a mistake. “Dr. Larry” runs the Best Friends Clinic. He’s a veterinarian.
Still, he’s lightly played by Kevin Kline, and he’s willing to give her a listen as he neuters a Boston Terrier. Turns out, he used to be a mental health professional. And he might be rusty, there might be a good reason why he gave up therapy. He’s still a good listener, still remembers the Kubler-Ross “stages of grief” list.
“You familiar with stage three of the grieving process? ‘Bargaining’ and ‘anger?'”
“What comes after that?”
“Great. I can’t wait.”
At least it turns out that she has “an animal problem” as well. There’s this damned starling that attacks her every time she tries to rehabilitate the yard and the garden they once planted with the little girl that they lost.
Director Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures,””St. Vincent”) does what he can with this material. But reaching for laughs with Loretta Devine, as a raging fellow patient at the mental hospital, with the sarcasm of the leads lost in a sea of gloom set to “sensy” pop by The Lumineers, Brandi Carlile and others, “The Starling” never finds the sweet spot that would make it come off.
The film gets across the idea of how gutting grief can be. But every attempt at a humorous moment in the mental hospital, every “quirky-cute” pet owner Dr. Larry deals with in the clinic feels halfhearted. I mean, what’s funnier than a little boy, dumped at the clinic with the family’s beloved, aged dog, because his mother “doesn’t handle” end-of-life decisions well?
Pretty much anything you can think of is, that’s what’s funnier than that.
And the actors play their parts accordingly. The performances are as deflated as the subject matter, which, considering the caliber of the players and the track record of the director, points back to the script.
So much for The Black List.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some strong language, and suggestive material
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine and Daveed Diggs.
Credits: Directed by Theodore Melfi, script by Matt Harris. Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42