The idea of three people all retreating from the world for reasons of their own and trying to help each other return is on its face a sound one, even if it’s been done many times before. So is a story about a couple dealing with the loss of their child, as devastating an event as one can imagine. But when every single scene is either played up for overwrought melodrama or, in the case of Lilly’s daily battle with the starling, bizarre humor that veers into ludicrousness (she wears a helmet and yet the tiny bird still seems capable of knocking her flat on her ass), something has gone badly off the rails.
It also doesn’t help that Melfi feels the need to blare some of the worst music of the past decade, in the form of so-called “alt-folk” acts like the Lumineers and Judah and the Lion, to punctuate nearly every single scene just in case we miss how emotional this is all supposed to be. As overbearing and fake as these smarmy acts sound, they are almost in their own way a perfect complement to The Starling.
McCarthy, so excellent as Lee Israel in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, proved indisputably in that film that she was capable of terrific dramatic work. But she’s lost here, waving her arms at the non-existent bird or yelling up at the walls of the hospital when Jack refuses to see her on one of her weekly visits. O’Dowd doesn’t fare much better with his underwritten and ultimately unsympathetic role, while Kline — always a welcome sight — invests just enough dignity in his role to make us potentially interested in seeing a movie about Dr. Larry.
But not that interested. There are a few moments of honest emotion here and there — the moment where Lilly tries to literally rub out the imprints of the legs of Katie’s crib in her bedroom carpet is unexpectedly poignant, for instance. And there is an exchange or two between Lilly and Larry that aren’t just pre-packaged words of wisdom or attempts at witty zingers. But these fleeting instances do not make up for the clumsiness and mawkishness of the rest of The Starling. We know that McCarthy, Melfi, and the others are all capable of doing better, but they got their wings clipped on this one.
The Starling premieres today (Friday, September 24) on Netflix.