Directed By: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenplay By: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Produced By: Ben Browning, Kevin Misher
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Lauren Graham, Zoë Kravitz, Viola Davis
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 101 minutes
Release Date: October 8, 2010
Review Date: October 16, 2010
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a frustrating film. For everything that co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck get right, they get something just as wrong. For every cliché they avoid, they use another like a crutch. This push and pull between alternately subverting and embracing expectations leaves the film strangely inert — a story with good intentions that fails to completely satisfy as an exploration of mental illness or teenage angst.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a sixteen-year-old bundle of stress, neuroses, and overall anxiousness caused by the sudden pressures of a school for extremely intelligent teens, the high expectations of his Wall Street bigwig father (Jim Gaffigan playing nicely against type), and his obsession with his best friend’s girlfriend Nia (Zoë Kravitz). He’s so stressed out that he vomits anytime he gets nervous and finds himself fantasizing about throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Scared that his fantasies might lead him to actually commit suicide, Craig checks himself into a mental hospital. But after less than a day, he realizes that he is not nearly as troubled as the schizophrenics and the patients who have actually attempted suicide occupying the ward. When he tries to convince the doctors that he thinks he doesn’t belong and wants to leave, he’s told that he has to stay for at least five days of therapy and evaluation. Will Craig learn important life lessons from his doctor (Viola Davis), edgy but likable patient Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), and pretty but troubled “cutter” Noelle (Emma Roberts)? Do you even need to ask?
Boden and Fleck make some salient points about the unreasonable pressures that teens face not just from parents, friends, and school, but also from their own minds. Craig’s father is constantly after him to apply for a prestigious summer school program that will look great on a college resume, but he’s never made out to be the bad guy. He just assumes that since his son is smart and, since Craig never says anything to the contrary, he should be interested in the same type of corporate world in which he thrives. The same goes for social situations. Craig imagines that his friends really don’t like him and look at him as though he were an alien. But nothing we’re shown supports this theory. Most of Craig’s problems are of his own making. It’s a trite theme, but at least Boden and Fleck approach it with sincerity and a measure of intelligence.
But the plot construct of having Craig learn how to live from people with mental illnesses is pulled straight from the Hollywood playbook of cloying emotional manipulation. While the film acknowledges early on that Craig is a walking cliché of teen angst, I hoped that he would learn this simply from observing the pain of the other patients as they deal with mental issues truly beyond their control. Unfortunately, most of his learning comes from the mouth of Bobby, who spouts philosophical sayings that he has cribbed from Bob Dylan lyrics. While Galifianakis plays Bobby with admirable restraint and acknowledges the obvious irony of Bobby being the most helpful person that Craig encounters, his character still smacks of obvious condescension to the audience. The idea that the sane need to be taught how to live their lives by the insane is just a load of sentimental trash that exists only to make audiences feel good about themselves for watching a film about mental illness. While Bobby is obviously troubled and is occasionally shown to be in pain by the bum hand he’s been dealt by his mind, he’s reduced to a plot device, existing solely to make Craig realize how he needs to take control of his life.
But even with all of my complaints about the way the story is handled, Boden and Fleck manage to cobble together a great cast and get uniformly solid performances out of them. Gilchrist is just the right mix of confused and sympathetic as Craig, while Galifianakis, Roberts, Lauren Graham, Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Aasif Mandvi hit just about every right note in their performances. Combined with the filmmaker’s occasional use of visual flourishes like animation and a musical interlude that works better than it should, the cast nearly makes the film refreshing enough to recommend.
But it’s not. Everyone involved works hard to make the film better than the script, but all their effort is eventually for naught. It’s Kind of a Funny Story could have worked better as a straight drama that takes the material seriously. Instead, the filmmakers try to smooth over the rougher subject matter of mental illness with winking acknowledgement of clicés and audience expectations in the third act. Sorry, but acknowledging clichés doesn’t make them any less lazy.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.