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Review: Grief gets pummeled by whimsy in Melissa McCarthy dramedy ‘The Starling’

A female patient consults with a doctor in the movie “The Starling.”
Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline in the movie “The Starling.”
(Hopper Stone/Netflix)

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The metaphors swoop in so shamelessly in “The Starling” that, at one point, even the film’s protagonist calls someone out for his blatant messaging (“Real subtle stuff, Larry!”). It turns out, she’s speaking for all of us.

That’s just one of several problems with this forced dramedy about Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd), a married couple muddling through life a year after losing their baby daughter from, apparently, sudden infant death syndrome. (More specifics about the girl’s demise — and less about her bedroom décor — wouldn’t have hurt.)

There are strong, relatable themes here, particularly involving the different ways parents may grieve the loss of a child and the attendant guilt, resentment and confusion that can divide a couple at a time when they need to unite the most.

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But “The Starling,” directed by Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures”), is no “Ordinary People” (few movies are) and screenwriter Matt Harris’ overreliance on whimsy and a seemingly desperate need to tug at our hearts — instead of our minds — undercuts the film’s more valid situations and sentiments.

We want to sympathize with Lilly and Jack — she’s a supermarket worker holding down the fort at home (a lovely country house she inherited), he’s a grade-school teacher being treated in a mental health facility for unmanageable depression — and root for them to find their way back to the world and each other. But that’s due more to the casting of McCarthy and O’Dowd, a pair of uncommonly engaging actors (they also appeared together in “Bridesmaids” and Melfi’s fine “St. Vincent”) than because of any true depth of character or authentic emotional dissection.

And then there’s that pesky title character: an aggressive and territorial starling that invades Lilly’s space, pecks away at her garden and knocks her to the ground so often she starts wearing a helmet and even tries to poison the bird. But unlike this year’s superior (and true-life) trauma drama “Penguin Bloom,” in which the arrival of an injured magpie helps an accident victim heal her soul, the starling often feels beside the point and only tenuously connected to the action.

The bird plays a more integral part toward the end of the film, but it’s a turn that feels so predictably contrived and symbolic that it takes the story down with it. Like much else here, what happens is — in theory — affecting, but doesn’t play out strongly or credibly enough to match its desired effect.

Kevin Kline is also on board as a shrink-turned-veterinarian (only in a movie like this) who offers Lilly a reluctant hand with both her shaky emotional state and her fine feathered foe. Kline is effectively measured, but we rarely get beneath the surface of his clearly haunted character.

A host of other familiar actors show up in brief, one-note roles, including Timothy Olyphant as Lilly’s impatient boss, Skyler Gisondo as her eager co-worker and Loretta Devine as Jack’s loopy fellow psychiatric patient. Daveed Diggs, Kimberly Quinn and Rosalind Chao offer bland support.

The overbearing score by Benjamin Wallfisch and a soundtrack featuring soulful, but intrusive songs by Brandi Carlile and others, doesn’t help the movie’s mawkish vibe.

It may seem churlish to knock a film that works so hard to present everyday, well-meaning folks facing unspeakable, real-life pain. But between the picture’s uncertain tone, quirky-for-quirk’s-sake elements and such self-conscious dialogue as “What color is the sky in your world, kemo sabe?” it’s tough to be all that supportive.

'The Starling'

Rated: PG-13, for thematic material, some strong language and suggestive material.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing: Starts Sept. 17, The Landmark, West Los Angeles; Los Feliz 3; available Sept. 24 on Netflix


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