It's Kind Of A Funny Story Is Also Kind of a Disappointing One

Here's my kind of funny story: When I was a post-collegiate punk with an afternoon to burn, I would often spend hours riding the single ticket I bought at the very cineplex where most of the TIFF screenings are taking place into and out of two or three different movies. It feels eerie to see many of my New York colleagues clamoring at the scene of the crime, and even stranger to hop from film to film not furtively but as festival workers smile and wave me in. I have to say: The thrill has been compromised.

On Friday my total was four -- a personal best at the Scotia theater. After getting off to a strong, stirring start with Black Swan, my screenings brought diminishing returns. I am disappointed, then, to say that It's Kind Of A Funny Story, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's light coming-of-age-in-a-mental-hospital comedy, was the last film I saw. After successfully bringing a deft dramatic balance to the story of a crack-addicted Brooklyn teacher in Half Nelson and a Dominican ballplayer in Sugar, the writing and directing duo may have pushed their luck -- and the magic of their tempering touch -- a little too far.

Their first adaptation is based on Ned Vizzini's fictionalized account of his brief stay in a psychiatric ward and stars newcomer Keir Gilchrist as Craig, a 16-year-old New Yorker in crisis, and Emma Roberts as Noelle, a fellow patient. The light cross-hatchings on Noelle's arms and face marked my second female cutting reference of the day, with Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan being the first. I'm not sure how I feel about filmmakers picking up on the latest trend in feminine self-destruction and using it as a kind of cultural currency. I suppose it was inevitable; perhaps it may even be helpful. But like so much in this film it does feel a little glib; like the title, not much here is unqualified. Zach Galifianakis plays another patient named Bobby, a newbie-whisperer with the heart of a lion and the hysterical, hairtrigger line delivery of... Zach Galifianakis. In fact his performance, which contains both wit and a welcome sobriety, comes closest to saving the film from dreary, frivolous self-involvement.

Close, but not quite. Craig is cracking under the pressure of his privilege; his parents, played by Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, just don't understand. The early scenes do a fair job of capturing at least a portion of the confusion that, having sprung from an unknown source and lacking a clear destination, can exhaust and exasperate a young person to the point of paralysis. There's too much unidentified stuff coursing through Craig, and the very purposelessness of that energy seems to lend it to a dark conversion. At least then it has a name.

Craig is convinced he's depressed. Instead of throwing himself off of a bridge, however, he pedals to the nearest hospital. Most teenagers -- hell, most adults -- might be heard to threaten suicide if their iPod goes on the fritz. Not even the intake doctor takes Craig seriously -- he has to plead to be committed -- and one of the big problems with the film is that we're never given a persuasive reason to either.

Instead a case is made for the benefits of a brief furlough in a mental hospital. It could be just the ticket to help a young kid remember that life on the outside -- no matter what you must do to make it tenable -- is probably the preferable alternative. Craig operates as a kind of tourist in Crazytown, and there's really no getting around -- in this film anyway -- how distastefully that comes across.

With Bobby as a guide and guru, Craig navigates both the environment and his own quirks, which include projectile puking and an obsession with his over-achieving best friend's vapid girlfriend Nia (Zoe Kravitz). When word gets out that Craig has been committed he becomes a celebrity at school -- it's so cool to be damaged; it's so real -- and Nia wants to siphon off some of that attention. That puts a wrench in Craig's budding flirtation with the taciturn Noelle. Roberts and Gilchrist share one of several of the film's discrete, well-turned scenes of human interaction: They circumvent the seemingly insurmountable challenges of conducting a normal communication between two teens in psychological recovery by turning conversation into a question and answer game.

Vizzini's amiable YA musings get ample play in Gilchrist's narration, and there are stylized flashbacks, animations, and one Precious-style fantasy of Craig leading all the crazies in a glam rock rendition of "Under Pressure" to add style and context to the rather sterile vibe of the film proper. But the story is wispy and the tone so close to risible that as the teen soap opera elements accelerate the wheels start to come off.

I was hoping Boden and Fleck might somehow manage -- whether by dint of the subtle performances they are able to elicit or their savvy handling of difficult material -- to mitigate the threat of glibness that translating Vizzini's slight cult favorite brings to bear. I suspect that fans of the book might enjoy the film; it is certainly a young film, it's unformed features will be more easily forgiven by those seeking merely, and even slightly, to relate.

It happens that almost 11 years ago (God) I watched a late screening of Girl, Interrupted in the Scotia theater (and yes, I snuck in after seeing Magnolia). That's not a terrific film, but it has its advantages, as this film reminded me. Chief among them is that it managed to treat mental illness as something more than a platform from which to launch the same old story of youth in purposeless revolt.