REVIEW: It's Kind of a Funny Story Is Funnier -- And More Compassionate -- Than You Might Think
We're not supposed to laugh at the mentally ill, which is why, at the movies, we sometimes just have to -- not out of fear that we too might someday turn out to "be that way," but because, if we're honest with ourselves, we know that we all carry traces of whatever "that way" is. It's Kind of a Funny Story -- directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) and based on Ned Vizzini's 2006 semi-autobiographical novel about a 15-year-old's stint in a psychiatric hospital -- opens up that safety valve affectionately and unoffensively.
Sometimes, maybe, it's a little too unoffensive: It's Kind of a Funny Story is so gentle, so anxious not to put a foot wrong, that it doesn't have much sticking power. But its casually compassionate perspective is also what makes it work: In a culture where children and their feelings often seem to run roughshod over the adult world, it's a relief to get a snapshot of a mixed-up middle-class kid who comes to realize just how manageable his problems really are.
That kid is Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a bright, stressed-out teenager who, after feeling somewhat suicidal over a case of unrequited love, talks a sympathetic doctor (played by the fine character actor Aasif Mandvi) into admitting him to a mental hospital. Once Craig has been signed in -- and has had his belt and shoelaces taken away, just in case -- he realizes his mistake: The people around him have real problems. Plus, they're kind of weird: An older black gent (Lou Myers) shouts out, "It'll come to ye!" at seemingly random moments that are really almost psychically opportune; the soft-spoken, pajama-clad, yarmulke-wearing Solomon (Daniel London) has such sensitive ears that even the tone of normal conversation sends him into a cottony state of anguish; Muqtada (Bernard White) is so distressed he can do nothing but lie in bed, a silent lump under a rumpled blanket; and Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), fond of disguising himself as a doctor and escaping the ward (his eternally rumpled hair isn't even that much of a giveaway), has some not-immediately defined problems. He becomes Craig's closest friend in the ward, making the kid's brief stint there -- the supervising psychiatrist, played by the great Viola Davis, has told him the minimum stay is five days -- not just tolerable but also, it seems, life-changing in just the right ways.
There's also, of course, a love interest for Craig, the brainy, waifish Pixies-loving Noelle (Emma Roberts): She's a cutter and a looker, and in only a few days, Craig has almost completely forgotten the young woman (Zoë Kravitz) who caused his not-so-major trauma in the first place. That's the whole idea behind It's Kind of a Funny Story: Craig is a sensitive, medicated modern kid (he tells that first doctor who sees him that he went off his Zoloft without medical supervision, which elicits a nonjudgmental but no-nonsense "You shouldn't do that"). And he does have his share of real problems: His parents, played by Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, are supportive and sympathetic, but dad, in particular, expects a lot from him. Boden and Fleck (who also adapted the screenplay) have shaped the movie as a non-scolding parable, the story of one kid who learns that -- stop the presses! -- he's not the center of the world. The movie has a loose, freewheeling vibe; even its major dramatic moments (including one in which Bobby crumples, fearing that he's blown the important interview that will secure him a spot in a group home) carry only the minimum requirement of dramatic weightiness. Because Boden and Fleck don't milk any of the character's problems for maximum dramatic impact, their approach may sometimes seem a little too facile.
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