In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a stressed-out teen spends five days in a mental hospital and decides he wants to be an artist instead of a business guy like his dad. Yes, that was a spoiler. But has a book or movie like this one ever ended with the sensitive hero rejecting the bohemian life and leaping into the rat race? That would be a funny story.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who adapted Ned Vizzini’s young-adult novel and directed, are not filmmakers who usually traffic in crowd-pleasing clichés. They deserved the acclaim they earned for Half Nelson, one of the least compromising studies of depression and addiction on film.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is also about depression, but without the hard edges. The most one can say for the film is that it lacks the self-importance of similarly themed Garden State and offers a showcase for the acting of comedian Zach Galifianakis. In short, it’s kind of an OK movie — and, as heartwarming comedies set in mental hospitals go, remarkably inoffensive.
Keir Gilchrist plays Craig, a high-achieving New York high schooler so hamstrung by anxiety over his future that he’s begun dreaming of suicide. He wants help from a human being, not just another Zoloft prescription, so — having apparently never seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — he checks himself into an institution.
With the teen ward temporarily closed, Craig finds himself spending his obligatory five-day commitment with the adult population, including long termers such as Galifianakis’ seemingly laid-back Bobby, who quickly becomes his adult guide and informal therapist. Probably the movie’s best insight is that solid advice can come from someone who’s seriously fucked up. And Bobby is, as we gradually discover in scenes that make the most of Galifianakis’ talent for the slow burn.
Gilchrist is just fine, with the stony-faced quality one often sees in real teens — as if they’re prisoners captured in enemy (adult) territory. When we travel inside his head, the movie explodes into hyperreal sequences in the same ADD-friendly, web-video-inspired style we’ve been seeing in youth-oriented films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Easy A.
Entertaining as these bits are, they aren’t enough to distract us from the thin and familiar storyline, especially when Craig gets to know Noelle (Emma Roberts), a cute, like-aged cutter who just happens to be institutionalized with him. In real life, the scars on her face would spell scary underlying issues. Here, they just seem to be accessories.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story occasionally brushes up against cold realities; we get a hint of deep sadness in Craig’s flashback to his pre-9/11 childhood, and again in Galifianakis’ most intense scene. When it comes time to offer counter-affirmations, though, Boden and Fleck return to the Hollywood coming-of-age blueprint. Give the kid a creative calling and a girl, and he’ll be fine.
Just once, I wish someone would show these sensitive teens something like last Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men,” in which Don Draper discovered his ex selling her paintings to support her heroin habit. Not to suggest all artists are junkies — just that the pursuits that look relaxing to a kid beleaguered by fellowship apps and standardized tests can be pretty stressful when you try to make a living at them. The high-speed competitiveness of modern life is a problem too big to be solved by a few days chilling with folks who’ve dropped out of the race, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie.