It's Kind of a Funny Story (United States, 2010)

October 10, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
It's Kind of a Funny Story Poster

It's rare that a story set within the confines of a mental ward/hospital/asylum cannot be said to owe a debt to Milos Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's Kind of a Funny Story is a case in point. Even though the basic narrative bears little resemblance to the central story of the classic 1975 drama, one central aspect is much in evidence: the sense of camaraderie (almost family) that develops among the inhabitants of the place. Whether there with the goal of eventually returning to society or shut away because that will never be a possibility, they bond and draw strength from one another. Whether this is an accurate depiction of how things are in real life, I cannot say, but it's almost always how they are in the movies.

As the tale begins, the 16-year old lead character, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), informs the audience via voiceover narration that he has been having vivid dreams of killing himself. Frightened that he might act upon these while waking, he checks himself into a mental institution. Almost immediately, he feels that he has made a mistake, but the only way out is to endure the mandatory five-day (minimum) observation period. His parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) are supportive but a little mystified as to what landed their son in his current predicament, although it's plain to us that the high-pressure academic demands of his father have something to do with it. Instead of holing up in his room, Craig does a little socializing, forming a friendship with the gregarious Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who is open about everything except the reason he's in the hospital. He also begins a tentative romance with Noelle (Emma Roberts), who might be enchanting enough to make him give up his obsession with Nia (Zoe Kravitz), the girlfriend of his best friend, Aaron (Thomas Mann).

The movie, co-written and co-directed by the team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (from the novel by Ned Vizzini), balances the right amounts of seriousness, light comedy, and whimsy. Some of the dream and fantasy sequences are characterized by an ethereal quality (such as an immersion into the animated world of Craig's imaginary city, which is eerily like the one in Inception) or an overt campiness (a lip-synching to the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure"). As far as mental ward tales go, this one is a soft-sell, without a lot of the hard drama that typifies "breakthroughs" and without the horror elements that often creep in around the edges. No one is force-fed their drugs or subjected to inhumane practices and the psychiatrist (Viola Davis) is empathetic and kind-hearted.

The point of the movie is that Craig comes to appreciate what he has. He makes the conscious decision to let go of the self-imposed pressure that led to his "cry for help" (it's doubtful that suicide was ever a real option) and allow himself to embrace the inner artist he has hidden away from his family and friends. Finding a kindred spirit in Noelle is a source of immense help and comfort and she is clearly better for him than Nia, whose interest in Craig becomes apparent only once his hospitalization imbues him with an off-kilter celebrity status at their school. The strongest relationship is the one between Craig and Bobby. As the former learns more about the life of the latter, he discovers what it really means to have problems.

The acting is strong, with Galifianakis doing an especially good job as the likeable Bobby. The element of reticence in the performance is perfectly in keeping with what one would expect from a man who's hiding a few things. And, although Bobby generally comes across as a nice, easy-going guy, there are times when cracks in his personality provide a glimpse of something darker - those are the instances in which Galifianakis shines. (It's a shame that It's Kind of a Funny Story may be too small for the actor to receive some kind of recognition at Oscar nomination time). Lead performer Keir Gilchrist is a relatively fresh face, although he bears a resemblance to a younger Justin Long. He's believable in the role and displays chemistry with Galifianakis and his same-age female co-stars, Emma Roberts and Zoe Kravitz, both of whom are equally good.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is aptly named because there's enough comedy to leaven an otherwise serious tale and allow the viewer to depart the theater in an upbeat mood. It's probably a tough job to pack a theater for a movie that takes place within the confines of a mental hospital - that kind of setting does not sell tickets - but the production is more uplifting, life-affirming, and enjoyable than one would suspect. Yes, clich├ęs abound, but they are more than counterbalanced by the strength of the characters and the voice of the lead. There's a lot to like about this little film.

It's Kind of a Funny Story (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2010-10-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1