SHORT TAKE: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (**)

Posted by · 4:13 pm · October 5th, 2010

BFI London Film Festival

(LFF coverage will begin in earnest when the fest itself kicks off next Wednesday. However, given that this film is opening Stateside on Friday, it made sense to yank the review forward.)

Hitherto a pair of the brightest lights on the American indie-film scene, writing-directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck share an apparent interest in rerouting classic Hollywood story patterns to a sharper, sadder place. Their first two superb features both took on genres largely characterized by inspirational narratives, only to find compromised hope in irregular resolutions: “Half Nelson” is an idealistic-teacher movie where the educator in question needs as much repair as his students, while “Sugar” is a sports drama whose gifted baseballer hero winds up pursuing the American Dream off the pitch.

If anyone, then, could breathe new life into the well-fed subgenre of the mental-asylum drama, you’d think it would be these two. Alas, Boden and Fleck have come a cropper with “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a terminally precious and timing-deficient youth comedy that sees the filmmakers trading in their quiet, observational character shooting style for an artificial attempt to emulate the tricked-out, capital-Q Quirkiness of early Wes Anderson.

That the film is their first adaptation, built from Ned Vizzini’s autobiographical comic novel of the same title, may explain the dispassionate, shortcut-laden nature of the storytelling and characterization here: 16 year old protagonist Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a familiarly diffident boy-neurotic whose only surprising trait is that he’s not played by Michael Cera, while the film trades in kooky stereotypes across the ensemble.

What the shift away from original scripting can’t be held accountable for is the sudden insecurity of the filmmaking itself. Stuffed to the gills with fussy visual tics, lumpenly edited fantasy sequences and on-the-nose soundtrack selections—“Where Is My Mind” in a mental illness tale, guys? Must we?—the film suggests Boden and Fleck have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their understandable bid for a wider audience.

The comic pitch is promising enough: after entertaining thoughts of suicide, otherwise well-raised, level-headed New York schoolboy Craig checks himself into the young persons’ psychiatric unit at his local hospital, only for building renovations to force him into the adult ward. There, he soon finds himself out of his depth among elders with psychological problems far less surmountable than his; in movie-mashing terms, it’s the equivalent of “Girl, Interrupted”’s wan heroine Susanna Kaysen entering the snake pit of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There’s potential for rich, cruel black comedy here, but the film bottles it by having Craig swiftly (and rather condescendingly) realize his good lot in life compared to the real lunatics he shares quarters with for a brief but supposedly life-altering five days. Neither does this cozy story risk engaging with anyone profoundly troubled: it’s no surprise that the two principal friends Craig makes inside—cuddly sweater-wearing gadfly Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and feisty-cute self-harming teen Noelle (Emma Roberts)—both fall on the decidedly functional side of crazy.

Any jagged edges of conflict or pain are neatly sanded away: even gentle social embarrassment is sidestepped in a scene where a reluctant Craig is made to sing for his fellow patients, only for Boden and Fleck to cut straight to a pointless fantasy rock video wherein the entire group lip-syncs to (yes) Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” The scene represents not just a botched comic opportunity, but a curious, uncharacteristic failure on the filmmakers’ part to locate or empathize with the individual voices within the kerrr-azy collective. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is harmless enough—amiably performed, particularly by rising star Roberts, and possessed of flickering good intentions—but this is precisely the kind of material that needs to threaten some kind of emotional danger to resonate.

→ 6 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

6 responses so far

  • 1 10-05-2010 at 6:30 pm

    Jacob S. said...

    Man, what a shame. This film could have been really good.

  • 2 10-05-2010 at 6:35 pm

    Loyal said...

    Your two stars are quite generous. It’s one of the worst films I’ve seen this year.

  • 3 10-05-2010 at 9:57 pm

    Ligaya said...

    “There’s potential for rich, cruel black comedy here” – only if they threw out Vizzini’s book & wrote an original script with their own take on mental health/illness. I appreciate your measured review. I think many critics wrongly ascribe some of the movie’s weaknesses to the directors when it rightly belongs to the original source material (some reviews don’t even mention that the movie is an adaptation). Vizzini has gone on record saying the movie is true in tone/content to his book. Craig is what he is, and his experience was his, including how Craig viewed his co-patients.

    Do we really believe that the Fleck/Boden who wrote & directed Half Nelson/Sugar could be so sensitive and knowing about the human psyche in general, and the specific pains & quandaries of, say, a failed young Dominican immigrant player in particular – could then be so ignorant about the mentally ill and the whole issue of mental health? What, have they been taken over by pod people? ( I know – a bit of hyperbole, just like it’s the worst movie of the year, but to each her own.)

    I agree with Kim Voynar’s (Movie City News) review – it’s jarring to those who’ve come to expect a certain Fleck/Boden brand. It’s not their best, it’s uneven, but they haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. There’s enough to enjoy.

    Maybe part of the fault lies within us – dazzled by their grand slam homer their first time at the plate; followed by another homer on their 2nd turn, avoiding the sophomore slump. So how many rookies hit 3 consecutive home runs their first 3 times at bat? (Well, the Jackson 5 *did* have four #1 hits for each of their first four releases, but they had Michael Jackson.)

  • 4 10-05-2010 at 11:45 pm

    the other mike said...

    damn, Guy Lodge went in on them. I still support them though, we have to root for this type of talent.

  • 5 10-06-2010 at 9:47 am

    Suzanne said...

    This film suffers from the same comedy/drama imbalance that destroyed Love and Other Drugs. Both films can’t decide if they should be comedy or drama–or dark comedy. Ultimately neither works and both come off as a little offensive and cavalier in places.

  • 6 10-06-2010 at 11:36 am

    Ligaya said...

    I still support Fleck, Boden *and* Guy. I forget which critic said he admired them for doing something completely different each time out. And I admire them for experimenting – and flailing or outright failing – than staying safely in a box. After all, that’s how one learns – from mistakes.

    I appreciate Guy’s honest review because *he* doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater which is what TIFF critics as a whole did (google Kim Voynar’s illuminating piece on the pile-on there, “TIFF Dispatch Day Five: It’s Kind of a Funny Film Festival Story … “).

    Guy at least gives proper recognition to Fleck/Boden’s talents & accomplishments before “coming a cropper.” The rest act like Victorian suitors who trash their former object of admiration upon discovering she has feet of clay – and conveniently develop amnesia. Voynar believes the TIFF critics’ reviews were honest, and no doubt they were, but I also think many critics nowadays are pulled by the gravity exerted by bloggers to get out there first with catchy phrases which will then be re-plublished more often. And snarky, more negative soundbites are so much more appealing than reasoned, measured critiques.