By Don Simpson | October 7, 2010
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoë Kravitz, Aasif Mandvi, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan
After dreaming of a successful suicide attempt one fateful night, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a 16-year old prep school kid (he attends Executive Pre-Professional High School), commits himself into the psychiatric ward at the Argenon Hospital in Brooklyn. Craig seems to feel the somewhat typical yet seemingly insurmountable adolescent pressures of academics and romance; yet somehow, presumably because he dreamed of committing suicide, he and the doctors of Argenon Hospital feel it would be most prudent to commit Craig for a minimum of five days. (The minor’s parents are not consulted in the matter until after he is committed.) The five days turn into a vacation of sorts for Craig, allowing him the peaceful tranquility of a sanitarium to understand how to cope with his overbearing father (Jim Gaffigan) and his intense attraction for his best friend Aaron’s (Thomas Mann) girlfriend, Nia (Zoé Kravitz).
Also on an extended holiday in the loony bin is Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a frumpy yet incredibly witty older gent who promptly becomes Craig’s mentor, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), the sexy yet troubled young lassie who is tattooed with cuts and scars. Bobby and Noelle are apparently the sanest of the ward — the peripheral characters are a strange and zany freak show who are humorlessly saturated with tired cliches and stereotypes. The ringleader of them all is Smitty (Jeremy Davies), a doctor on the ward (because of Davies’ penchant for playing twitchy and deranged characters I was convinced for the longest while that he was just another mental patient playing doctor) who seems to have developed a close friendship with many of the patients.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the directing duo behind Half Nelson and Sugar) and based on Ned Vizzini’s novel (which was inspired by Vizzini’s own brief hospitalization for depression in 2004), It’s Kind of a Funny Story turns out to be a fantasy flick for mopey teens. Craig, it seems, is quite the narcissistic young brat; his mental illness is treated merely as a cool affectation (Bobby even refers to him as “Cool Craig”; Nia also finds it “cool” and sexy that Craig has been committed), a pretense to escape from the societal pressures of the real world for five days. The mental ward represents a bubble for teens to live their lives totally free of stress.
My favorite part of It’s Kind of a Funny Story is the glam-orific rendition of David Bowie and Queen’s collaboration “Under Pressure”; but the film does have a few worthwhile things to say about parents who manipulate and control their children’s future careers by carefully plotting their educational endeavors, steering them away from expressing themselves creatively and directing them towards more profitable lifestyles. In a funny kind of way, It’s Kind of a Funny Story functions as an ultimate warning to parents to lay off the pressure and to allow their teens to enjoy their adolescence.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a great-looking film with some really nice casting choices. Gilchrist handles the lead role flawlessly, especially if the intent is for Craig to come off as a self-centered and lazy rich brat. Galifianakis and Davies give their most toned-down performances to date, treating their characters with a gentility that I never knew they possessed. Unfortunately, Roberts’ Noelle is terribly underdeveloped and underutilized — Noelle is the only teen in this flick dealing with some real troubles in her life, yet we learn absolutely nothing about her (other than she likes music and is covered with cuts and scars).
Admittedly, I have not read Vizzini’s novel but I feel like Craig’s problems are severely watered-down to the point that it is completely unbelievable that he would ever be committed into a psychiatric ward; Noelle’s problems are made non-existent and even Bobby’s psychological state seems fairly simple and innocuous. Then, there are the more perfunctory characters, whose mental states seem far too exaggerated and cartoonish. This seems like a narrative ploy so that the lead characters would seem less scary or weird to the film audience thus allowing for better chances of acceptance and empathy.
Mind-bending animation sequences are interspersed throughout, which along with Broken Social Scene’s original score and the rest of the soundtrack (including songs by The Damned, The Drums, Dead Oceans, Black Sabbath, and Pink Mountaintops) — I especially enjoyed the animation sequence scored to “Intro” by The xx — are the most effective cinematic techniques utilized in It’s Kind of a Funny Story to convey what is really going on inside Craig’s teenage head.