'Funny Story' Hits All the Wrong Notes
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There are films whose pitches, personnel and pedigrees seem so right that yet, somehow, wind up on the screen so removed from that initial potential and possibility that it actually makes you curious as to how everything could have so clearly gone so wrong without anyone noticing. It's as if someone had taken the blueprints for a dove in flight and delivered an ostrich standing in an alleyway. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have proved themselves to be talented, unsentimental but emotionally engaged film directors with "Half Nelson" (2006) and "Sugar" (2008). Ned Vizzini's novel "It's Kind of a Funny Story" -- inspired by his own experiences checking himself into a psychiatric hospital for depression -- is much-beloved. Zach Galifianakis, flush from the success of "The Hangover," seems like a smart choice to play Bobby, the inmate who counsels Vizzini's stand-in, Craig (Keir Gilchrist, "The United States of Tara"), during a five-day stay in a New York psych wing.
Which is why it's dismaying, as you sit in the theater, to have "It's Kind of a Funny Story" lay out across the screen limp and phony and cute, smothered in fantasy sequences and plucky animation, depicting serious mental illness as a series of charming quirks or stick-on makeup scars, peddling the same tired obligatory but-wait-maybe-it's-we-who-are-the-crazy-ones clichés. With Craig realizing his stay was a bad idea and wanting out -- and the hospital bureaucracy beholden to keep him for five days even as mom (Lauren Graham) and dad (Jim Gaffigan) plead for his release -- we see him lightly bounce against the absurdity of the ward's ways and shake things up: "One Flew Under(age) the Cuckoo's Nest," you may as well call it. Or, considering that Craig begins a tentative romance with Noelle (Emma Roberts) -- a cutter who couldn't be cuter -- and the film turns into a sappy indie romance you've seen before, how about "5 Days of Summer and Psych Treatment"?
It is possible that I'm being too hard on "It's Kind of a Funny Story," but if that's the case, it's only because Boden and Fleck are so much better than this. It's like watching that great scrappy band you've always loved for their raw emotion killing themselves to do elevator music versions of Air Supply songs. "Half Nelson" and "Sugar" were not without their emotional moments, but they also had a clear and piercing worldview that made them rich and real and truly earned. Fleck and Boden, like us, were always aware of how challenging happiness -- and life -- can be. "It's Kind of a Funny Story" can't wait to be fake, starting with voice-over and fantasy sequences and culminating in an off-the-rack happy ending. There's even a musical-fantasy number where, as the ward's karaoke night turns to a sing-along of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure," we suddenly see the cast in spangled and elaborate rock star ensembles on a vast and brightly lit set, giving it everything they've got -- even while they're lip-syncing to an edited version of the song that jumps past several verses for maximum impact. Not only do director-screenwriters Boden and Fleck need to hitch their film to a pop song in the pursuit of emotion, they're willing to edit it to better fit their timeframe. It's like being in a rush to be a fraud.
Galifianakis' Bobby is Galifianakis -- it's sad when a comedian's hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" reveals more dramatic range than his major motion picture, acting-with-a-capital-A dramatic debut. Galifianakis is bearded and bustling and breezy, and his portrayal of mental illness as puckish oh-you-kid wackiness is echoed throughout all the characters in the film, and not coincidentally comprises one of the film's major shortcomings. Craig, quizzical and bemused by the absurdity of it all, wanders among his fellow inmates like he was visiting the Island of Misfit Toys instead of a psychiatric ward. (The film's portrait of mental illness -- as tics, as quirks, as wacky idiosyncrasies easily solved by a heart-to-heart or a record-listening party, with almost no trace of fear or terror or true madness -- is both shallow and offensive.) Gilchrist plays Craig with just enough charm and intelligence to make you wish he was in a better film. "It's Kind of a Funny Story" has its heart in the right place; its brains and guts, though -- the two things you would want a story of madness and modern youth to have, and up until now the two things that made Fleck and Bowden filmmakers worth caring about -- are entirely absent.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.