Angsty teen gets mental in imaginative comedy, ‘Funny Story’
Craig doesn’t have any more than the usual teenage angst, for the usual reasons—stress over parents, school, the future, and, of course, a girl. But, like most 16-year-olds, Craig lacks a certain perspective; he believes his feelings are more extreme than everybody else’s. When they start leading to suicide dreams, he opts for desperate measures in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, a droll, surprisingly winsome coming-of-age comedy-drama from the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (their first two films were Half-Nelson, and the impressive Sugar).
Resisting the advice that he should just go home and tell his parents what’s troubling him, Craig pleads for results—and is ushered into the Adult Psychiatric facility upstairs (the teen ward is being renovated). As soon as he signs himself in, he starts to regret it: his surly roommate never leaves his bed and Craig suddenly finds himself—gulp—”committed” to a minimum five-day stay among schizophrenics and other “nutjobs.” Hoping for a pill to make him feel better, Craig wasn’t expecting a stint in the Cuckoo’s Nest, but when his parents arrive, more relieved than anxious on his behalf, he realizes he’s stuck.
But just when we start to feel this story isn’t going to be funny enough, the film hits its stride. Craig starts growing on us; Gilchrist shapes him into a wry, honest commentator on his own failings who grows wiser and more self-deprecatingly funny as the story progresses. Zach Galifianakis is great as Bobby, the most seemingly “normal” of Craig’s fellow inmates (the brash one, who knows how to sneak out of lock-up), who not only mentors the younger man in life and love, but joins him in an emotional growth-spurt or two. Then there’s pretty, teenage Noelle (Emma Roberts), a sometimes-cutter under observation, whose challenging forthright manner and high spirits begin to coax Craig out of his obsession with his best friend’s girlfriend (a sexy Zoe Kravitz).
Not a lot transpires inside the lock-up that we don’t expect, but the proceedings are handled with a tremendous amount of sympathy, grace, and adroit comedy. The subtext about the way modern kids are pressured to achieve scholastic and financial “success,” often at the expense of simply living their young lives, is well handled. Craig tells the staff psychologist (the wonderful Viola Davis) the last day he can remember feeling “happy and free” was in the eighth grade. Then “everything changed: girls, grades, two wars, a messed-up economy, they all seemed to happen at once, on the same day!” And of course, Craig discovers he can’t leave his emotional baggage at the door, creating as much stress and romantic complications for himself inside as out.
Fortunately for Craig, this is not Shock Corridor; the portrait of a mental ward and its inhabitants is pretty benign. Still, if the setting feels a bit cutesy, the filmmakers’ storytelling tools are imaginative and fun. Clever diversions include a 30-second montage of the successful life Craig will forfeit if he doesn’t get into a prestigious summer course, and several wonderful animated, cityscape drawings that become ever more fantastical as he loosens up his psyche in art class. Best of all, a sequence in music class features the best performance of a Queen song (“Under Pressure,” natch) by someone other than Queen ever filmed. The story may not have much that’s new to say about life, love, and growing up, but it’s the journey that counts in this buoyant, appealing comedy. Adapted from the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini, the film takes a while to get started. At first it feels sort of like a warmed-over Woody Allen retread about a neurotic, misfit New Yorker trying to cope. Freaked out over a suicide dream in which his well-meaning but clueless parents argue over what will become of his expensive bike, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), takes himself over to the nearest ER. (“I want to kill myself,” he announces to the receptionist. “Fill this out,” is her blasé reply, handing him a form.)
IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY
★★★ (out of four)
With Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Roberts. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13. 101 minutes. . Watch film trailer >>>