Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 09/22/21

The Starling starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline lands (and soars) on Netflix this Friday. My review follows the synopsis and trailer below. After that, you can read my conversation with the film’s director (and co-producer) Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, Hidden Figures) who talks about why he’s “always drawn to stories about a couple trying to figure out how to stay together.”

Synopsis: Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) struggles through the loss of her infant child due to SIDS and her husband’s (Chris O’Dowd) subsequent depression while also battling a territorial starling for dominion over her garden. Directed by Theodore Melfi/Written by Matt Harris

IMHO: From its creative opening depicting the starling of the title The Starling grabbed my interest and never let go. The actual story focuses on Lilly and Jack Maynard, a married couple sympathetically and realistically portrayed by Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. She’s a grocery store manager. He’s a grade school art teacher. A year before the film begins, their idyllic small town life is cruelly disrupted when their infant daughter suddenly dies of SIDS, an event that sends Jack spiraling into a breakdown and in-patient treatment at a mental treatment facility an hour away from their home. His descent into depression only adds the Lilly’s own struggle to cope with their devastating loss. Meanwhile, her one release, tending to her garden is severely complicated by the starling that obsessively attacks her whenever she does so.

Realizing that she needs help as well, a facility therapist recommends she make an appointment with Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline), an old colleague of hers located closer to Lilly’s home. Lilly eventually decides to follow her suggestion and makes an appointment. To her surprise, she finds that Dr. Fine is no longer in psychiatric practice but is now a veterinarian. It’s a quirky and amusing plot device that also ties nicely into the starling situation.

​My Conversation with The Starling Director Theodore Melfi

JWK: I’m happy to be able to sincerely tell you that I watched the film and thought it was great. What drew you to The Starling?

Theodore Melfi: I’m always drawn to stories about a couple trying to figure out how to stay together. I’ve been married 25 years. I’m always trying to figure that out myself. I think people relate to those kind of movies. I think people relate to movies about relationships working out. I think people like movies that show them there is a way to work it out…and there is a way to stay to stay together because, ultimately, I think we are rarely with someone (we don’t want to work it out with). We certainly don’t start out that way…We start out with a lot of hope, right? And a lot of belief that “Yeah, this is the one. I can make this work out. I love this person.”  So, I’m really attracted to those kind of stories.

JWK: I know that you’ve been married for 25 years to Kimberly Quinn who is an actress, a writer and your producing partner. Every marriage has its ups and downs. How much did you draw on your experiences for this movie which is really about commitment, right?

TM: I mean I draw on my own marriage like in everything I do. Especially, being 25 years, it’s part of who I am as a person at this point. It’s part of the fiber of my soul…Kim is way better than me in every way – a way better person (with) much more faith (and) much more belief. I’m the one that’s a hot mess. Everything in the past 25 years we’ve done together has helped move us to staying together and has kept us together. We’re constantly working on our marriage (and) our selves – individually/together. I have a degree in psychology so…I should be fixed by now. It takes a lifetime, I guess.

JWK: I can relate. I’ve been married for almost 20 years and pretty much the same dynamic is at work. You’re, perhaps, best known for writing, producing and directing the Bill Murray movie St. Vincent, which is a personal favorite of mine, as well as directing and co-writing Hidden Figures which received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Is it fair to say that there’s a redemptive theme that runs through your movies?

TM: Yeah, that very fair to say. I think I realized when I was making St. Vincent what I wanted to do with my life in this business. I wanted to shine a light on humanity and be a source of positivity, hope and just general goodness. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m trying… Well, I know why. That’s what I hope for myself. So, what I hope for myself is I end up being at the end of my life just good – (that I) did good (and) left the world a better place than when I arrived. I think it’s a very common theme and a very universal theme. I think people want to always be better and a lot of times we just don’t know how. The world is filled with a lot of negativity, a lot of dissenting voices, a lot of division and a lot of tearing (apart). You notice this clearly in America in the last four or five… Nah, I would say in the last 20 years. The constant tearing down. I mean the minute CNN and Fox put up those dueling boxes…America changed. The news became a “boxing” match. So, that sets a tenor for everything. I think my personal mission is to provide some sort of (alternative to) that.

JWK: Your movies, including this one, seem to start with the premise that people are flawed. They come with a lot of baggage – but they are, essentially, good and are not trapped by their past. In terms of the audience, I think you’re spot-on what people want and need from movies. But, in my opinion – and I don’t know if you share it – Hollywood seems to generally be enthralled with a different message these days.

TM: How much time to you have? It’s become fashionable in our industry to be negative. It’s fashionable to show people struggling who have no hope or don’t get out, who just give up. I mean you look at the crop of films in the last (few) years – at what we are raising up at the Oscars. There’s not a mystery why no one is watching the Oscars. There’s no mystery why no one is watching awards shows. There’s no mystery about why people aren’t seeing those movies. The general public doesn’t want them. That’s it – and yet, for some reason, no one’s listening. They just refuse to listen. It’s almost like a naive arrogance. We know what the audience wants. I know what the audience wants. The audience wants the same thing you want and the same thing I want. The audience wants to leave a movie hopeful, feeling good and going “You know what? I can do it!” That’s the point of it. The darkness and the divisiveness, is it helping? Is anyone getting better? Is it helping anything? Is anything getting better? We have to ask ourselves as a society “Is anything getting better because of the films or the video games or things we create?” And the defense is “Oh, no. It has no impact.” You are lying to yourself if you think that a kid watching a video game (with) active shooting (and) killing, killing, killing does not affect that child. You are lying to yourself. You are lying to yourself that movies like John Wick are escapism. They are not escapism. I’m sorry, it’s not escapism. It’s a man killing body counts of 50, 60, 70, 80. That’s not art. I’m sorry. That’s not art. That’s causing division. That’s causing violence. That’s my opinion.

JWK: What films have inspired and uplifted you?

TM: My favorite movies are movies about people – Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump. These are movies about people – people overcoming, succeeding, getting better, figuring out who they are. Again, hopeful movies. Those are the movies I grew up on. We used to have a golden era of filmmaking where we could tell these stories. I thank God for places like Netflix because they have such a broad audience that they need movies like this – and they have the wherewithal to make them. So, thank God for places like Netflix that are not limited to making eight movies a year where they all have to do 100-million dollars at the box office. Netflix can make a 10, 20-million dollar about two people trying to figure it out. That leaves me with a lot of hope, actually, that we can still make these movies.

JWK: There’s those super-blockbusters and then, as you alluded to, there’s all those movies that are put out there that are nominated for Oscars and, yet, don’t connect with the general audience. It’s almost like something other than the profit motive is in play.

TM: Yeah, there’s two worlds. Art, basically, is supposed to inspire, right?

JWK: So, what’s next for you in terms of projects?

TM: I don’t know exactly what will be next for me. I have a bunch of projects I’m working on at this time. I’m writing a DreamWorks animated movie with Trevor Noah and Elizabeth Banks who are the producers called Cuckoo about a bird trying to find his way. I’m writing an animated movie for Netflix called The Fourteenth Goldfish with my wife Kim and Alessandro Carloni (based on the book by Jennifer L. Holm). That’s about a young 12-year-old scientist girl who whose grandfather is a famous scientist who ages down – and becomes a 14-year-old again and they have to live together. So, that’s a beautiful story. I have a film called Huck, also at Netflix. It’s a superhero movie about the goodest superhero on the planet. He’s pure good and the rest of the world tries to tear him down. And a bunch of other writing things. I don’t exactly know what will be next but I know it will be something that’s in line with what I do.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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