We are deep into the problematic and increasingly cringe-worthy Netflix original movie “The Starling” when Chris O’Dowd’s Jack starts playing with a group of kids on Visiting Day at a mental health facility where he is a client. We just know this whimsical moment is going to turn sideways — and when it does, we’re as horrified as the children and the parents and the staffers who witness Jack’s meltdown.
Netflix presents a film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Matt Harris. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material, some strong language, and suggestive material). Running time: 104 minutes. Now showing at Landmark Century Centre; available Friday on Netflix.
The story should end then and there, with Jack remaining a patient in that facility for a very long time because he’s clearly a troubled individual. But we still have a long way to go, and that won’t be the last time “The Starling” takes a wrong turn and goes farther into the weeds and asks us to come along on a treacly, sugar-substitute journey, with a manufactured, unearned conclusion.
Here’s the confounding thing about “The Starling.” The screenplay by Matt Harris was once on the Black List, a famous, annual survey of the most prominent and promising scripts yet to be produced. Director Theodore Melfi has delivered such excellent gems as “St. Vincent” and “Hidden Figures.” In addition to the eminently likable Melissa McCarthy and O’Dowd, the cast features Kevin Kline, Laura Harrier, Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine and Timothy Olyphant. So much talent — and everyone goes down with the ship in one of the worst movies of 2021. (Everyone in that supporting cast save Kline is given minor, meaningless, one-dimensional roles. What a waste!)
I mean, this is the kind of movie where Kline’s kindly veterinarian, who used to be a psychoanalyst, is named Dr. Larry Fine. “Like the Three Stooges?” says McCarthy’s Lilly, upon hearing his name.
Yes, like the Three Stooges.
With one of the most overwrought scores in recent movie history setting the melodramatic tone, “The Starling” tells the story of Lilly and Jack (O’Dowd), a happily married couple whose world is shattered when their infant daughter dies of SIDS. The bulk of the story takes place one year later, with Lilly going through the motions at her job as a clerk in a grocery store, while Jack is in the mental health facility after a suicide attempt. Even though Lilly has a relatively low-paying job and Jack was a grade school teacher, they have a photo spread-worthy, spacious farm house in Northern California thanks to an inheritance, and Lilly decides to plant a garden in the front yard — but her efforts are continually thwarted by a nasty, territorial, obviously CGI starling that keeps destroying the vegetables and literally bonking Lilly on the head, to the point where she starts wearing a football helmet every time she ventures out, because of course there would be a football helmet in the house.
For no reason other than to introduce Kevin Kline into the movie, a therapist at Jack’s facility recommends that Lilly talk to Kline’s Larry, who has a kind of Doctor Dolittle veterinary practice going on, and reluctantly agrees to talk to Lilly even though he gave up the whole counseling-humans thing years ago. McCarthy and Kline are wonderful together as Lilly pours her heart out to Larry and we can see this is a shot at redemption for both of them, but the dialogue is so heavy-handed and so stuffed with metaphors that at one point, after Larry tells Lilly starlings aren’t meant to live alone (just like people!), Lilly cracks, “Real subtle stuff.”
It’s not a good thing when characters in a movie are voicing opinions the viewers are having at the same time.