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.
But just a few. The chirping, territorial starling (he never gets a name, which speaks to how Lilly still keeps him at a distance, even in this hokey premise) has already zipped through the film’s opening credits, but the all-CGI creation — real starlings are, dare this newly minted birder hasten to clarify, a bit larger, but definitely just as annoying as what the team has cooked up here — finally makes his stand once Lilly starts to dig out the Maynards’ overlooked garden. She is, it seems, trying to find a positive outlet to her pain, and while that might be the sort of trope-tastic decision of many a film that’s come before, Melfi and McCarthy don’t play it up. It’s just something she does, if only so she doesn’t do something else, something bad, something like, well, what Jack did to land himself in his mental health facility.
The starling doesn’t take too kindly to Lilly encroaching on his turf — the revelation that he’s guarding a nest and some cute little bambino birds is blatant, but the emotion it inspires in both Lilly and the audience feels earned — and sets about driving her out, mostly by force and bad attitude. The contrivances by which Lilly then comes to need the services of Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, who should set about starring alongside the exceedingly well-matched McCarthy in all kinds of other films ASAP), a former therapist who now strictly treats animals, are silly and forgettable. But they do land us somewhere kinda cute: Dr. Larry is what Lilly needs, as someone both plagued by a) emotional issues and b) ill-behaved birds.
As eye-rolling as that might sound, like many other parts of “The Starling,” it works in spite of itself. McCarthy, who long ago proved her ability to craft dramatic performances alongside her comedic ones, is wonderful both when she’s alone (which is often) and when she’s facing her myriad problems with Dr. Larry. As Lilly starts to heal, sort of, the starling keeps battering her back, literally pecking his way through her facade and forcing her to confront the real world and all of its winged menaces. No, Lilly and the starling don’t exactly bond, but they do heal each other in certain ways, and if that sounds cheesy, hell, so be it.
Harris’ script and Melfi’s workmanlike direction move toward predictable ends, including a sequence involving a number of packages of baked goods that seem to be pulled from some sort of “quirky dramedy” Big Book of Ideas, but that doesn’t rob the film of doing what it aims to do: give us cinematic comfort food, with a bird on it to boot.
“The Starling” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it in select theaters on Friday, September 17, with a steaming release to follow on Friday, September 24.