Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is depressed. He has a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend, doesn’t fit in at school and has yet to fill out the application for the competitive summer school he hopes to attend. Basically, he’s a teenager dealing with basic teenager stuff – but for him, these things cause undue stress and presumably are the cause of his recent dreams about suicide. Fearing he may be unable to control his emotions, he rides his bike to the ER and checks himself into the hospital’s psychiatric ward.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the new film directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) and based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, follows the 16-year-old’s experiences during his mandatory five-day stay in the mental hospital.
Because the teen floor is undergoing renovations, Craig is assigned to the adult floor where he meets a score of interesting characters, who (Craig, for some reason, seems surprised to learn) are a bit off-kilter. Some talk to themselves, some don’t talk at all, there’s a guy who complains about the ward’s excessive noise (which is actually far from excessive) – and there’s Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) who seems, like Craig, to be somewhat (key word: somewhat) normal.
Craig and Bobby become friends, and Craig begins to learn why Bobby has been living in a mental hospital for the past few months. Like Craig, Bobby suffers from depression. Played by Galifianakis with surprising depth and nuance, Bobby provides the film’s real insight. He has a family, a wife and young daughter, with whom he wants to be. His daughter clearly loves him and wants him home, but Bobby feels unworthy. He feels inadequate and to buckles under the pressures of adult responsibility, making it impossible for him to support her. Through Bobby, Craig is able to see that the real problem with his depression – what makes it so hard to treat – is that there is no reason for it. Like his new friend, who seems to have a lot to be happy about (namely, his adorable daughter), Craig is depressed because he is depressed, not because bad things are happening in his life (except those caused by his depression).
The film’s other major narrative element involves Craig’s relationship with the ward’s only other teenage resident: Noelle (Emma Roberts), a self-mutilator. Where Boden and Fleck go so right with Craig’s relationship with Bobby, they go so wrong with his friendship (and inevitable romance) with Noelle. The characters are original, and their respective mental illnesses offer a new challenge to their relationship, but the trajectory of their romance is completely formulaic. Like most movie-matchups, these two get together, breakup and then reconcile – it’s been done many times before, and, frankly, this movie should have been above such clichés.
As directors, Boden and Fleck – whose past work has been of the dramatic variety – don’t seem to know how to handle the lighter aspects of telling this story. They are most successful when going for poignancy and pulling solid performances out of their actors, but far less so when shooting for laughs. Many of their jokes land, but it’s the darker or subtle humor that works best. When going for broad jokes, or – even worse – when trying to be quirky, their efforts falter. Also, there are a few visual tricks (animations, dream sequences, etc.) that seem to be pulled straight from the “quirky low-budget indie comedy” playbook. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is still mostly enjoyable throughout, but the clichés and shortcuts prevent it from being great. Instead, it’s just kind of a funny movie (yes, I am aware that making a pun on the film’s title is a cliché).