It’s Kind Of A Funny Story: It’s Also Only Kind Of A Good Movie
There’s no reason why, with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck at the helm, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story should have been anything other than stellar. Their first feature, Half Nelson, is brilliant, and their second feature, Sugar, is also a great piece of storytelling. However, with this quirky indie-comedy source material, Boden and Fleck stumble. If you are expecting a middle-of-the-road indie dramedy, with some nice moments and a Zach Galifianakis performance unlike one we’ve seen before, then perhaps your expectations will be met. The film suffers from a case of trying too hard to make us laugh, which one-dimensionalizes the characters and creates a very awkward flow to the film. It’s not a very funny story, so perhaps it’s the most apt title of 2010.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) comes from a life of privilege. His parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) are loving but they apply pressure for him to get into prestigious summer programs to put on his college applications. The girl of his dreams (Zoe Kravitz) has been involved with his best friend (Thomas Mann). These two things together give Craig depression and thoughts of suicide, so to escape, he checks himself into Argenon Hospital. He freaks out when he sees the serious problems some of the people there have, so he tries to leave, but the head doctor (Viola Davis) informs him there’s a 5-day minimum for staying. While in there, he meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who seems normal but has issues with his family, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), who has attempted suicide before.
It’s possible to have a series of complex, multi-dimensional characters in a psych ward film. If the film wants to be a psych ward comedy, however, you should be prepared for the one-note crazies. And they’re all here. There’s the guy who yells the same thing all the time. There’s the fat guy who thinks he’s a ladies’ man. There’s the soft-spoken gentle giant. There’s the guy who’s never spoken or left his room (pop quiz: guess what he does in the final scene when Craig leaves?). There’s a Hasidic Jew who keeps insisting everyone keep the noise down. Do these characters have lives? They might have in a better written film. Here, they’re used as punchlines, vessels for hollow attempts at humor. Even the doctors, portrayed with warmth by Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies (who seems more like he should be playing a crazy than an attendant), don’t really have a story.
This is the trouble with quirky indie dramedies. They’re so focused on being quirky and strange that they forget to be human. Oh, sure, there are a bunch of elements which are meant to give the illusion of humanity, like animated dream sequences, special effects where a sky comes together with color before our characters’ eyes, and montages where the characters smile and laugh as music by Broken Social Scene plays. Some of these scenes work on occasion– the cliched man who never leaves the room even won me over to some degree because of the actor who played him, and the girl of Craig’s dreams, Zoe Kravitz, has a great look and presence, making it obvious why she’s cast in a bunch of upcoming blockbusters. Too many of these scenes don’t though, because they aren’t honest. The freeze frames and flashbacks to scenes of “comedy” (I use the term loosely) flop especially miserably. How did the directors of Half Nelson think projectile vomit would be a good repeated gag, or that our main white character pretending to be a rapper on MTV Cribs would slay the audience?
If there’s one shining star in this film, it’s Zach Galifianakis. He’s been playing the same zonked-out freak in most of his recent films– and it always works, because he’s such an honest and committed zonked-out freak. In this film, Bobby really takes center stage in our hearts, because Galifianakis gives this character warmth. He still has the off-kilter Galifianakis delivery, but he has moments where we see him miss his daughter and we realize that this guy can truly act. In one scene, he throws a tantrum, and I expected the audience to laugh because of his usual on-screen persona… and not a soul did. That’s how you can tell the man is doing good work. A movie about Bobby had great potential, because it would have had heart and complex characters. Instead, we focused on Craig, a cypher of a typical teen, whose life machinations are fairly routine and not particularly compelling. There’s an interesting film somewhere in here about the depression teens feel due to the stress school and parents put upon them. Boden and Fleck, having done one of the best films on school ever, should have focused in on that. Instead, the appeal of the quirky indie dramedy dragged them into jokeland, and it went from being potentially interesting to just… kind of.