Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Shouldn't Like "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

I really shouldn't like "It's Kind of a Funny Story" as much as I do. It's a coming-of-age film with the remarkably twee premise of the main character Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a depressed sixteen-year-old with grave concerns about his future, checking himself into a local hospital after contemplating suicide. He's placed in the psychiatric ward, but upon meeting his fellow patients, wants out almost immediately. However, the doctors insist he stay for a minimum of five days for observation, and his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) agree with them. So in those five days, Craig works through many of his personal issues and learns valuable life lessons from his fellow patients, especially a similarly depressed man named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), his roommate Muqtada (Bernard White), and the requisite pretty girl, Noelle (Emma Roberts).

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is a feel-good movie about very troubled, unhappy people. The directors manage this by never letting us see the particularly unpleasant parts of mental illness, preferring to portray all the patients in the psychiatric ward as affably quirky, or at worst, temporarily curmudgeonly. Craig easily makes friends with everybody, gains self-confidence through the simplest therapeutic exercises, and even falls into the unlikely situation of wooing two girls at once, Noelle and his longtime crush Nia (Zoe Kravitz). This greatly sanitized, oversimplified version of life in treatment should be very troubling, and may possibly even ping as borderline exploitative to some. However, I found the story very sweet and funny and hopeful, with an admirably positive outlook on life.

I think what made the movie work for me was the performance of Keir Gilchrist as Craig. He never visibly seems depressed or afflicted, aside from projectile vomiting when he gets nervous. There are no meltdowns, no scenes of silent misery, and none of the other hallmarks of the usual movie mental patient that every edgy young actor seems to have played at one point or another. Gilchrist just comes across as a bright, guileless kid who is going through a hard time. It takes a while to realize how anxious and unhappy he really is. Since the film is told from his very subjective point of view, where the narrative is occasionally interrupted by fantasy sequences, it becomes somewhat more understandable why there would be some selective editing of his psychiatric ward experience.

The supporting cast is great, with several familiar faces in smaller roles. Aasif Mandhvi from "The Daily Show," appears briefly as the admitting doctor in the emergency room, Jeremy Davies from "Lost" shows up as a hospital staff member, and Viola Davis plays a psychiatrist. I like Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, possible his only non-jerk role this year, but he doesn't get as much to do here as he probably should. Neither do many of the others actors, including Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's parents. The scope of the story is extremely limited, so we don't get to look in on Craig's home life or learn much about the other characters' backgrounds except in the most superficial sense. There's clearly more to Noelle than we see in the film, for instance, but her reasons for being at the hospital are barely acknowledged and seem to evaporate by the end of the story.

The film admits that it's too pat, addressing the issue directly in the ending narration. Problems are solved too easily, and the epiphanies come too fast to be believable. I worry a bit that it may set some unrealistic expectations about the treatment process, since Craig's breakthrough is almost comically easy. But then again it's nice to see a portrayal of people with mental health problems that doesn't romanticize the angst of affliction. Instead, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" looks on the bright side, and seems to be aimed at younger audiences who might benefit from the film's positive messages. I suppose that makes the movie a very, very good after school special, essentially, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I got a real kick out of watching Craig and Bobby practicing flirting techniques together. And watching Craig and Noelle sneak up to the roof in borrowed scrubs. And Craig's fantasy sequence where everyone in the ward is jamming together in a flashy rock band.

So while my rational mind insists that "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is too flawed and too slight a piece of work to take seriously, I still like it. I like everyone in it, I like its attitude, and I like what it's trying to say. It's my favorite comedy of 2010 so far, and here's to more like it.

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