Craig is a 16-year-old high schooler about to commit suicide. He rides his bike to the Brooklyn Bridge, and then carefully sets it down on the side of the road. He begins to move to the edge of the bridge, balancing on a thin crossbeam high above the traffic. He is prepared to end his pathetic life—a life in which he disappoints everyone he knows, including himself—when suddenly his mother asks him what he intends to do with his bike once he has hurled his body off the bridge. His father is also concerned about his bike. After all, it wasn’t cheap. Craig’s little sister wants to know if she can have it after he dies. Bizarre? This opening to It’s Kind of a Funny Story sets the tone for the film: ultimately serious and provocative, but with a touch of the zany. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Sugar and Half Nelson) make it OK to laugh at mental illness in this creative new comedy. However, the film goes beyond cheap shots at schizophrenics, questioning the issue of teenage depression. It’s Kind of a Funny Story displays fresh filmmaking with an imaginative animation sequence, as well as a music video scene that could have inspired rock bands like Kiss in the early 80s.
Overwhelmed with summer school applications and a desire to impress his father, a suicidal Craig (Keir Gilchrist from The United States of Tara) checks himself in to a psychiatric ward, where teenage and adult patients must reside together while the adolescent ward undergoes renovations. Almost immediately upon arriving at the psych ward and meeting some of the patients (including his roommate, a middle-aged Egyptian who hasn’t left his bed for weeks), Craig miraculously feels better and is ready to return home. When the psychiatrist informs him that he is required to stay for at least five days, the film seems to be heading into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted territory, where audiences question if the protagonist is “crazy enough” for a psychiatric ward. The film suddenly seems familiar. Then Zach Galifianakis comes onto the screen, playing Bobby, the self-appointed leader of the patients, and everything changes.
In many respects, Galifianakis recreates his character from The Hangover, an out-there kind of guy with hilarious one-liners. Bobby’s dedication to the game of table tennis (don’t call it ping-pong), along with his know-it-all attitude, lead to well-earned laughs. But we cannot laugh wholeheartedly, as every joke and physical gag is tainted with a touch of tragedy. Bobby’s time on the ward is almost up, and he faces homelessness, as well as losing all contact with his young daughter, if he does not ace an interview for a placement in a group home. Galifianakis gives a Robin Williams-esque performance, perfectly blending comedy and tragedy a la Patch Adams. Bobby secures our sympathy, and, although a supporting character, his story often and inadvertently eclipses Craig’s situation.
But it would be foolish to suggest that Bobby deserves his own movie. Instead, he serves as the perfect complement to Craig’s character. In contrasting these two, the film questions the authenticity of Craig’s depression: is he really suicidal or is he overwhelmed with stress? Where is the line between normal teenage feelings of insecurity and clinical depression? In a scene of group musical therapy, the film answers our questions about Craig’s struggles when he sings Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Although the song choice may be too obvious, the truthfulness of the lyrics finally provides him with the right words to express himself, which has been his problem throughout the film.
Despite a witty script, the film falls into the trap of sentimentality at the film’s conclusion. To be fair, Craig (who narrates) does warn us when it’s about to get schmaltzy. While the concluding voiceover serves to tie all of the loose ends together—one of those ends being a romance between Craig and Noelle, a fellow teen patient in the adult ward, satisfactorily played by Emma Roberts—Bobby’s story is never properly resolved. This is not an oversight in the screenplay, but instead is required by the overall tone of the film. Boden and Fleck want us to chuckle and chortle, but they deny any gut-busting belly laughs in order to maintain the film’s serious undertone. Dry humor is an ideal tool for dissecting the sensitive topics of suicide and mental illness, while also keeping the character-driven film from becoming preachy and heavy-handed. Who knew a film about suicide could be so much fun?
It’s Kind of a Funny Story opens on October 8, 2010 and is rated PG-13.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; novel by Ned Vizzini; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Anna Boden; original music by Broken Social Scene; production designer, Beth Mickle; produced by Patrick Baker, Ben Browning, Michael Maher, Kevin Misher, Peter Rawlinson, and Jeremy Kipp Walker; released by Focus Features.
With: Keir Gilchrist (Craig), Zach Galifianakis (Bobby), Emma Roberts (Noelle), Lauren Graham (Lynn), and Jim Gaffigan (George).
Review by Melissa Cleary