Chris O’Dowd has been making audiences laugh since 2006, when he first played the bored tech support guy who answered the phone, “Hello, IT, have you tried turning it off and on again?” in the pilot episode of The IT Crowd. Now he’s on a mission to make you cry in the new Netflix drama The Starling, where he stars as a grieving parent opposite Melissa McCarthy. And while McCarthy is undeniably great, bringing her pragmatic charm to the role, it’s O’Dowd that ultimately steals the show.
It’s a shame that The Starling falls short of its potential—too many heavy-handed metaphors and corny jokes, not enough of pretty much anything else. None of this is the fault of the talented cast, however, and both McCarthy and O’Dowd manage to elevate their characters beyond the less-than-revelatory script. We meet Lilly Maynard (McCarthy) and her husband Jack (O’Dowd) as they are preparing to welcome their baby girl to the world. When we see them next, they’ve had to say goodbye to her.
It’s not clear exactly what happened to cause such a tragic loss. That’s not the story of this film. Instead, the movie follows Lilly and Jack’s slow road to recovery. While Lilly puts on a brave face and tries to keep moving forward, Jack finds himself in a psychiatric facility following an attempt to take his own life. Save for a few scenes at the start and end of the film, McCarthy and O’Dowd spend the majority of The Starling in separate locations.
O’Dowd is tasked with retreading the ground where many actors have been before: the unwilling mental hospital patient. But, proving his skill as a dramatic actor as well as a comedian, he pulls it off beautifully. Jack’s frustration at his inability to move on bleeds through every seemingly indifferent shrug of O’Dowd’s shoulders and clipped tone of voice. He conveys Jack’s loneliness by the gentle way he hangs up on his wife, having called just to hear her voice without speaking. And he shows his desperation with just a slight, breathy waver to his voice when he tells off Kevin Kline’s character (a veterinarian-turned-therapist, don’t ask) for thinking only of himself.
All of this build-up comes to a head in O’Dowd’s captivating third-act monologue. Jack decides to finally participate in the group therapy session that he had previously brushed off. “I’m depressed, that’s why I’m here,” he begins. “My little girl passed away.”
He talks about the fact that he’s been depressed his entire life, even before his daughter died. He talks about the way he can’t seem to stick to a treatment or medication. He talks about how much he admires her wife, and her inability to quit. And, in a moment of sheer brilliance, he does the voice of Sacha Baron Cohen from Borat to say “My wiiife.” Truly, O’Dowd is one of the few actors who can go from quoting Borat—in the middle of a moving speech, no less—to completely convincing tears in the span of 30 seconds. Now that’s what I call talent!
The Starling may not be a great film, but it is a showcase for O’Dowd’s dramatic abilities and a reminder of his range as an actor. This isn’t his first serious role—he was also nominated for a Tony for portraying Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway in 2014—and hopefully, it won’t be his last. We need more Oscar-bait monologues featuring Borat quotes, for the good of the people.
Watch The Starling on Netflix