Metaphormulaic | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly


The Starling gets too tangled up in its symbolism to focus on its human story.

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During the third act of The Starling, therapist-turned-veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) speaks with Lilly Maynard, who has become his de facto patient, about some of the unique characteristics of the titular bird, a pair of which have nested in her yard and taken to dive-bombing her. They work as a pair, Larry tells her, co-parenting their young in ways most birds don't, sharing responsibilities; they're not meant to be alone, he says. To which Lilly—who is struggling to patch up her relationship with her husband, Jack (Chris O'Dowd)—responds, "Real subtle stuff, Larry."

The line is meant to be a moment for a self-aware chuckle, as we nod along at how the starling serves as a stand-in for all of the struggles Lilly is facing in her life. But there's not really an easy way to be self-deprecating about how you're doing an annoying thing, while also erasing the fact that you're doing an annoying thing. As earnestly as The Starling occasionally attempts to address hard issues like grief, mental health and fraying marital bonds, it's still hamstrung by the way Matt Harris's script feels committed to making absolutely everything revolve around that damn bird.

There is a heartbreaking reality at the core of Lilly and Jack's estrangement: the death from SIDS of their infant daughter, Katie, a year earlier. While Lilly attempts to soldier on through her days as a grocery store assistant manager, Jack struggles to make progress at an in-patient mental health facility after a breakdown, with Lilly's weekly visits seeming more obligatory than mutually helpful. And when Lilly is back at home, trying to maintain their large property on her own, there's that territorial little winged menace to contend with.

Structurally, The Starling faces complications in its goal of giving equal time to both grieving parents. There are attempts to sneak a little comic relief into Jack's story, whether through supporting characters like Loretta Devine's high-strung patient, or Jack's frustrated reactions to his deadpan therapist, but ultimately his story is much more serious, and by necessity more isolated. O'Dowd offers an effective performance when he has to convey Jack's mindset at its most fragile, but his half of the film can't provide quite the spark that comes from McCarthy's scenes with Kline, as the two versatile actors play off one another both comedically and dramatically. A frustrated McCarthy is almost always an entertaining McCarthy, and she gets the showy scenes as her bottled-up emotions finally begin to reach a boiling point.

The real impediment to The Starling, though, is the starling, which is at the forefront right from the opening credits, when director Theodore Melfi (who worked with McCarthy on St. Vincent) focuses on a CGI bird attempting to survive a threat to its very life while bringing nesting materials to its mate (elbow nudge). When Lilly attempts to care for a garden in her yard, she fumes at the birds pecking away at her produce (she is failing at her attempts to nurture something, nudge nudge). When she considers killing the starling by going directly to the nest, she's stopped short by seeing its newborn chicks (nudge-ity-nudge-nudge). Words are spoken about how there are some things in nature that are just part of the natural order, and beyond our control (please consider putting on rib pads to protect yourself from the nudging). There's symbolism, and then there's a symbol becoming so oppressive that it threatens to suffocate everything else.

The Starling is hardly the first film to deal with grief-stricken parents at a crossroads, and it's understandable that a writer might seek out a twist that would allow his story to stand out. It's easy to envision a version of this narrative that's simply about two people at polar extremes of dealing with the same tragedy, and how hard it could be for them to give each other what they respectively need. Maybe it feels a little familiar, and maybe it's a harder sell than something that finds bits of whimsy in the actions of a fantastical, nigh-anthropomorphic bird. But it's harder to feel the pain when it feels like all we're doing is reading the Cliff Notes, explaining to us what the starling represents in each successive chapter.

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