The Starling: Please avoid this sentimental claptrap

Review: If you like grief porn and self-help gibberish, this one’s for you

The Starling
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Director: Theodore Melfi
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao
Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

For the first hour or so something was nagging me about Chris O'Dowd's demeanour in this atrociously mawkish slice of grief porn for Netflix. Where else had I seen him staring despairingly at the camera like a hostage being forced to read out demands from an unseen cue card? "Our captors are treating us well. Do not attempt a rescue," he doesn't quite say. Of course. Gal Gadot's Imagine video. You remember it like it was yesterday.

O’Dowd is not bad here. Nor is Melissa McCarthy. If our stomachs must churn to the ever greater attenuations of a fragile avian metaphor – and it seems they must – then better with the old pals from Bridesmaids than almost anybody else. But neither can make sense of the film’s tonally drunk stagger from light comedy to raw tragedy to powerful emetic. Chris and Mel play a couple coping badly with the recent death of their infant child. He has ended up in a mental facility after trying to kill himself. She is still working miserably at the local supermarket. Everything changes when… well, what exactly?

General Noriega’s compound

There are plenty of reasons to yell at The Starling. The pile-up of dreary sub-country songs eventually takes on the quality of something the CIA would have played outside General Noriega’s compound. The nauseatingly cosy sunlight flitting through the picturesque trees suggests posters to accompany the self-help gibberish that stands in for dialogue. The raw chutzpah of using such a serious scenario to frame sentimental claptrap is hard to wholly forgive.

Most of all, however, the film deserves a bellowing for failing to come up with anything you could call a plot. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Mel is sent to see a veterinarian – Kevin Kline looks just as desperate as the two leads – who does a side-line in psychoanalysis. When not discussing her childhood over the dog neutering, she carries on an initially antagonistic, eventually friendly, relationship with an angry, unmistakably computer-generated Starling. Whatever you say, folks.


The recent, likeable Australian film Penguin Bloom, in which Naomi Watts befriends a crow, demonstrated it is possible to make lachrymose sense of an almost identical conceit. Watch that on Netflix before watching The Starling. Then watch everything else. Then watch nothing at all.

On Netflix from September 24th.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist