It's Kind Of A Funny Story

It's Kind Of A Funny Story


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The ‘Troubled Teenager Tragicomedy’ and the ‘Dysfunctional Family Study’ seem to have become as much staple genres in American cinema as the action thriller and the romcom in recent years – and run the same risk of becoming a little bit trite and over-familiar.

Despite several original touches, a good few laughs and some moving moments It’s Kind Of A Funny Story never quite escapes from this trap – an indie-ish, artsy exercise in reinforcing all the ideas and opinions its audience held when they arrived at the cinema.

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Its central character Craig (Keir Gilchrist) outwardly appears to have it all - studying at a prestigious New York school and getting ready to apply to an equally top-drawer university, he has successful, supportive parents and cool, good-looking friends. So why does he feel suicidal?

No one seems able to answer that question, least of all Craig himself. So he’s admitted to hospital for five days of psychiatric observation, but because the youth section is being refurbished he’s placed in the adults’ ward. His first taste of institutionalised life is a severe jolt, as is the realisation that his fellow patients have long-term and very serious mental health issues.

As well as the classic templates of the ‘TTT’ and ‘DFS’ (such as The Squid And The Whale or The Savages) the film has an obvious debt to Milos Forman’s classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While there’s no demonic nurse, Craig does encounter a roommate (Aasif Mandvi) who’s never spoken, or indeed left his bed, in years; and a wise, wisecracking mentor Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who initially seems far too sane and savvy to be here, but is gradually revealed to be as troubled as any of the patients.

But these similarities only highlight how much the film lacks the power and emotional depth of the Jack Nicholson-starrer. It would have been too glib for the story to simply be a wake-up call for Craig, reminding him that there are worse things to be than an over-privileged, angsty New Yorker and the writer/directors resist that temptation. Indeed, they seem to regard his mental state – tormented by the pressures to ‘fit in’ and ‘succeed’ in a world where he’s constantly bombarded by contrasting images of global chaos and lifestyle achievement – as a sign of how sensitive and creative he is.

Equally his fellow patients are all either lovable eccentrics or troubled artistic souls – like the beautiful but fragile self-harmer Noelle (Emma Roberts), with whom he falls in love. They all rally round ‘Cool Craig’ and teach him that there’s no harm in being different.

Nothing wrong with that message, but it too seems a glib and somewhat manipulative take on mental illness. It shies away from outlining the grim reality of the circumstances that lead to people like Bobby and Noelle being on psychiatric wards in the first place, preferring to see them as unfettered free spirits whose occasional lapses are just a source for a ‘serious dramatic scene’ to leaven the comedy and a chance to display some ‘real’ acting.

There’s never much sense of Craig’s problems turning into anything more serious than a strange but quickly completed rite of passage. You’ll be cheering for him when he embarks on a mission to win the girl and persuade his roommate to get out and embrace the world (succeeding where years of work by healthcare professionals has failed? Yeah, right) while still feeling this is all as unreal as the sugariest feelgood romcom.

It’s based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, which was inspired by his own hospitalisation for depression, so I have to admit he knows more about the realities of the situation than me. And the strange inverse logic by which Craig’s family and friends see his plight as a mark of how ‘special’ or ‘cool’ he is rings true. But I can’t help suspecting that a few harder edges have been smoothed off in its transition to film.

There are some good laughs – when Craig imagines himself in alternative universes of hyper-achievement – and moments when harsh reality does intrude, such as Bobby’s realisation that institutionalised routine offers a comforting, decision-free alternative to a life of struggling with his illness. The writer-directors (best known for the school drugs saga Half Nelson and the baseball drama Sugar) break up what could be a somewhat grey palette with quirky interludes ranging from animation to a glam-rock video parody.

The most talked-about performance has, of course, been that of Galifianakis, and he’s undoubtedly impressive; toning down his star-making comic persona from The Hangover with a generally low-key, restrained portrayal of a man smart enough to be acutely aware of how troubled he is and using his ‘charismatic oddball’ persona as a shield against the world. But Gilchrist, too, manages to make Craig more a three-dimensional, genuinely sympathetic character than a stereotyped emo whinger. And Roberts adds another bright, assured performance to her CV.

It’s kind of a good film, but it’s kind of an irritating one too. One which, in the end, seems to have no purpose except to send its central character back into the world with life lessons gleaned from the Serenity Prayer and Bob Dylan lyrics, ideally equipped to become a kind of, like creative New York type – or possibly make indie-ish, artsy films about...

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2010
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A New York teenager with suicidal tendencies strikes up friendships when he finds himself placed on the hospital’s adult psychiatric ward.
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Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writer: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Ned Vizzini

Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Aasif Mandvi

Year: 2010

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US

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