Since its inception in 2005, Black List, a semi-official industry ranking of the best (or at least the best)liked) unproduced scripts in Hollywood, has launched critical favorites and Oscar winners like Juno, Whiplash, and Manchester by the sea. It has also given us The beaver, Passengers, and All about Steve. That both winners and losers have been blacklisted suggests that leaders are no better at distinguishing them from each other than your average nonsense. Or maybe it’s just what sounds like a fat swing on the side can just as easily land with a splat on the screen. That was almost certainly the case The starling, whose manuscript appeared on the blacklist way back in ’05. Sixteen years is one of the longer arcs from start to development and release in the history of the list, but those who go in and expect a gem that finally gets a chance to shine will instead be confronted with a movie that plays as a transmission from another galaxy – it, or one of the parody films on 30 Rock. (This would be a project for Jenna, not Tracy.)
Trying to rationalize the characters’ behavior in this film is a quick way to madness, so please adhere to the following synopsis. When we first meet Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy), she is a grocer trying unsuccessfully to make peace with her infant daughter a year earlier. Her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), is fighting even harder than she is, to the extent that he currently lives in a psychiatric facility after attempting suicide. On the advice of a doctor at the facility who keeps decade old business cards available for … reasons, Lilly goes to a therapist named Larry (Kevin Kline), who has since left the company and become a veterinarian. He sees her anyway, which comes in handy when Lilly enters into a code-dependent dynamic with a bird that keeps diving-bombing her as she tries to bring the scary, abandoned kitchen garden in her front yard back to life. If you failed high school English, the last part is a metaphor.
The emotional beats in this film that are not overtly manipulative do not make sense, as director Theodore Melfi (Hidden figures) clumsy grafted misjudged comedy on a devastating drama about loss. Again, this may have read differently on the page. Humor is, after all, one of the ways in which people deal with the things that would otherwise offend us. But mixing all these conflicting emotions turns out beyond Melfi’s abilities. The starling chugs with like an insecure, sentimental tearjerker until a line in the script demands a rejected joke from Dolittle, and violà, suddenly a dog bumps McCarthy’s legs. All of this is the soundtrack of the final white sounds from Brandi Carlisle, Nate Ruess and The Lumineers who provided original compositions for the film. It sounds like the intro music to an HGTV show about crooked farms and has the same emotional impact.
The saddest thing about all of this is that McCarthy and O’Dowd make a compelling pair on screen, and they are both strong enough actors to find the real, defeated people in this fake script. It’s actually a good cast: Kline does his best and brings what he can to a character whose primary trait is infinite patience for Lilly, who enters his office (and eventually home) at all hours. Timothy Olyphant and Skyler Gisondo serve time in generic, ungrateful roles as Lilly’s colleagues, and Daveed Diggs is there as a psychiatric nurse. Pover Loretta Devine gets the worst of it as the broadest, most stereotypical character in the film, one of Jack’s fellow human beings “farmers”, which are prone to gross outbursts at inappropriate moments.
The starling helmet Melfi broke out and instructed McCarthy in a similarly clever, smile-through-tears-type film, 2014‘s St. Vincent. At the time, the actress was working exclusively in broad comedies and needed a role that proved she was good at more than just chatter. Now it’s McCarthy who does Melfi that favor – without her in the lead role, his film would be completely unbearable. McCarthy is loyal to her collaborators, which is an admirable trait in a person, but sometimes makes her stink like this. Now they are straight and she can move on.