It's Kind Of A Funny Story Review

It's Kind Of A Funny Story film still

Score

As disposable as a paper cup and, for such promising directors, a serious regression.

The vast majority of viewers will recognise Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden as the directing duo behind Half Nelson, the vehicle for Ryan Gosling to play a drug-addicted American teacher struggling to apply his creativity or overcome a crippling emotional diffidence. Despite a couple of hugely over-stated scenes, the film seemed to be an oblique message from the darker recesses of experience, notable for its sure-footed negotiation.

For It’s Kind of a Funny Story, an irreverent and occasionally tasteless adaption of the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini, Boden and Fleck have taken a radically different tack. The film is centred around Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a nervous, wide-eyed 16-year-old overwhelmed by the world and relentlessly pressed to achieve by his career-obsessed father. After an aborted suicide attempt on Brooklyn Bridge, Craig is submitted to Argeron, an adult psychiatric ward in New York City.

Here he meets an Egyptian who never leaves his bed, an Afro-Caribbean man with comical Tourette’s and an orthodox Jew with an absolute aversion to noise. He also meets Noelle (Emma Roberts), a seemingly self-possessed teen who compulsively lacerates her skin as a form of catharsis, and the laconically witty Bobby, a slobby would-be mentor played by the in-demand Zach Galifianakis.

Superficially, the eclectic residents of Argeron recall One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, yet comparisons to Jack Nicholson’s institutional hell would be misleading. In Fleck and Boden’s correctional facility, there is no dichotomy between the thirst for liberty and the confines of treatment. There is little threat of unspooled or self-afflicted violence. There is no Nurse Ratched.

Instead, it’s a quiet place where people in the midst of sadness join together to be gently encouraged to talk and listen, do arts and crafts and adhere to simple social rules in the hope they will learn to seek solace.

Which is all good and well. But here mental illness seems ultimately solvable – like a crossword – and while this ‘all you need is love’ didacticism may be compelling, this divorce from reality undermines the film as a whole. Granted, we thirst for movies to romanticise our everyday experience, but this film seems happy to reduce mental illness to a series of discernible pit-stops.

In its worst moments, It’s Kind of a Funny Story seems to suggest, without pursuit, that depression is essentially a controllable and get-overable condition. If only that were true.

This suspicion is not helped by Fleck and Boden’s oh so knowing new indie stylings; Juno dialogue, fantasies of the ward’s patients performing Queen songs, Vampire Weekend put downs visibly inserted in the script. They aren’t endearing, just distracting. Imagine Scott Pilgrim crossed with Girl, Interrupted.

This may simply be an issue of performance. In Half Nelson, Boden and Fleck had no qualms about lingering on Gosling’s face for long interludes, accompanied only by the melodies of Broken Social Scene. They trusted in Gosling’s skill to appear glazed and detached and childishly vulnerable all at the same time. Keir Gilchrist, all 18 years of him, can’t play inhibited with the same nascent power.

It’s a similar story with Emma Roberts. Roberts' lineage is akin to Hollywood royalty – she’s the niece of Julia, after all. She already has a long list of middling credits, including Noel Clarke’s mendacious 4.3.2.1 and the studio-stooge Nancy Drew. Yet this role seems too much for her and whilst her closeted sensuality is disarming, her angst resides at O.C levels.

The two share some lovely moments, including a conversation where she demands a sentence must finish with a question. It results in a seductive fetishising of their troubled minds; an alluring if discomforting scene, like eHarmony on film.

Zach Galifianakis takes the role of Bobby, Craig’s would be mentor. Galifianakis has established himself, very quickly, as Hollywood’s go-to Falstaff, starring opposite Robert Downey Jr in the recent Due Date, in Jay Roach’s self-prophesising Dinner for Schmucks and in Todd Phillips’ The Hangover. He provides the film’s most enduring moments, delivering a performance that veers between teasing humour, straight-out antagonism and crumbling pathos in a blink of an eye.

There’s stuff to like here, and it’s tempting to submit to this film, and to report it as a gentle and charming little indie gem. But it’s not. It’s self-serving and naive, a skinny decaf Cuckoo’s Nest.

Anticipation

After Half Nelson and the under-rated Sugar, Boden and Fleck conjure excitement.

4

Enjoyment

It’s supposed to be kind of a funny story, but it kind of drags.

3

In Retrospect

As disposable as a paper cup and, for such promising directors, a serious regression.

2
Out This Week
Still Showing
Recommended*

View 11 comments

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
I 'kind of' agree with you, but still think the film is more nuanced than you are allowing. What is important here is that everything that happens in the film is filtered through protagonist Craig's point of view, and it is that perspective which is at times blinkered, and which imposes a romanticising, comic spin on all the events. We know from early on that Craig likes to fantasise, and tends to avoid confronting serious problems. We also know that it is Craig himself, at least initially, who regards his fellow patients as a sort of comic freakshow. The film's apparent thinness derives largely from the fact that it is focalised through a rather self-absorbed character who stays on the ward for less than a week, and barely gets beyond a superficial acquaintance with several of his fellow patients (many of whom are withdrawn, and unwilling or unable to tell their own stories). Mental illness forms the film's background, but really this is as much a coming-of-age film as anything else, except where the adolescent's growing pains are neatly offset by the adult problems around him.

Nonetheless, there are darker, more realistic undercurrents in the film that are occasionally permitted to peep through Craig's narrow, sentimentalising gloss. Once, e.g., the rejected Noelle has taken to her room, Craig (and therefore we) may be unable to see what she does in there, but the film certainly does not shy away from the fact that she is a self-harmer, and therefore raises precisely the question of what she might be doing out of sight (even if the question remains unresolved - and resolving it would of course introduce another sort of cliché). Similarly (and it is difficult discussing this without entering spoiler territory, athough I'll try to be cryptic), the film presents what happens to another major character in a very ambiguous light, and this is an ambiguity which goes very much against the grain of Craig's life-asserting positivism in the final sequence. Craig may, at least temporarily, overcome his suicidal thoughts, but despair, suicide and death remain very prominent (if implicit) themes at the film's end through other, very subtly handled means.




Anton Bitel

3 years ago
"...here mental illness seems ultimately solvable – like a crossword – and while this ‘all you need is love’ didacticism may be compelling, this divorce from reality undermines the film as a whole. Granted, we thirst for movies to romanticise our everyday experience, but this film seems happy to reduce mental illness to a series of discernible pit-stops.

In its worst moments, It’s Kind of a Funny Story seems to suggest, without pursuit, that depression is essentially a controllable and get-overable condition. If only that were true."

I think this is rather unfair. First of all, depression can (as a matter of fact) in some cases be controllable, even get-overable - but the film is also at pains to point out that in other cases, the condition will never be overcome. While Craig might emerge with a more positive outlook on his life than the one with which he entered (which is not the same as having a future actually as bright as the one he fatasises in the film's final montage), the film also delicately implies that another of its main characters may have checked out in a rather different and altogether less salubrious manner.

The truth is that the filmmakers are smart enough to be way ahead of your objection, which is why they have Craig say in one of his final monologues: "OK, I know you're thinking: 'What is this? Kid spends a few days in the hospital and all his problems are cured?' But I'm not. I know I'm not. I can tell this is just the beginning..." Bobby, who is a veteran of the sort of suicidal depression that has recently begun to afflict Craig, and who refers to his own regular returns to the psychiatric ward as his 'holidays', offers a rather precise model of how the hospital's exit is for some just a revolving door (with only unemployment, homelessness and broken families on the other side) - and there is no sense that characters like Muqtada or the schizophrenic Afro-Caribbean guy are going anywhere fast. This film may focus on Craig as its protagonist, but it presents a broad spectrum of mental illness. Like the title says, it's only 'kind of' a funny story.

tomseymour

3 years ago
Anton,

Appreciate your comments. Of course, the film was an adaption of a novel - a lot of consideration, on many different levels, would have been given to the process of portraying mental illness through both a dramatic and comedic lens. I appreciate the bravery it takes to do this, and I don't want to appear disingenuous.

My concerns were that some, if not most of the minor characters in the film were largely used for comic relief; they seemed to be considered as commodities rather than characters, mirrors for Craig's problems which are rather shamelessly romanticised. Peter Bradshaw described it as "a gallery of patients with picturesque problems." I found the final sequence involving Muqtada a glib and insincere rendering.

For example, Craig's relationship with Noelle hits the rocks, as a romance in a film must so as to provide a reconciled ending. Does she show a propensity to cut herself as a result, or does her state of mind effect her capacity to pursue the relationship despite his rejection? These are central questions if you're going to set your film within the confines of a psychiatric ward, but the film shies away from them.

As I said in the review, Galifianakis' character provides depth and pathos lacking elsewhere, but beyond that, the film hides in sentimentality. It may be a broad spectrum of mental illness, but it's a perilously thin one.

Tom

3 years ago
Anton,

Appreciate your comments. Of course, the film was an adaption of a novel - a lot of consideration, on many different levels, would have been given to the process of portraying mental illness through both a dramatic and comedic lens. I appreciate the bravery it takes to do this, and I don't want to appear disingenuous.

My concerns were that some, if not most of the minor characters in the film were largely used for comic relief; they seemed to be considered as commodities rather than characters, mirrors for Craig's problems which are rather shamelessly romanticised. Peter Bradshaw described it as "a gallery of patients with picturesque problems." I found the final sequence involving Muqtada a glib and insincere rendering.

For example, Craig's relationship with Noelle hits the rocks, as a romance in a film must so as to provide a reconciled ending. Does she show a propensity to cut herself as a result, or does her state of mind effect her capacity to pursue the relationship despite his rejection? These are central questions if you're going to set your film within the confines of a psychiatric ward, but the film shies away from them.

As I said in the review, Galifianakis' character provides depth and pathos lacking elsewhere, but beyond that, the film hides in sentimentality. It may be a broad spectrum of mental illness, but it's a perilously thin one.

tomseymour

3 years ago
Without meaning to push this joke too far, I 'kind of' agree with you as well. I'm always a little skeptical about film-makers that claim to completely align the audience's perspective with that of the protagonist. Here, Craig seems to like all the same things as Boden and Fleck, they're aesthetic traits are still all over this film, not least the Broken Social Scene soundtrack. With the animation sequences and musically excerpts and reasonably unknown leads, they seem to be consciously tapping in to the new indie films that have populated Hollywood for the last year - (500) Days of Summer springs to mind. On a baisc level, if this film was funnier or the characterisations resonant and memorable, I may not have found it so grating, but it's (kind of) not.

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
Indeed, the animation sequences, musical excerpts and other heavily stylised interventions very much reflect the sort of ADHD aesthetic of recent indie pics (as well as the jittery chaos of Craig's imagination - after all, those sequences are all in his head) - but I am less convinced that they have much in common with the naturalism on offer in Boden and Fleck's previous two films. What It's Kind Of A Funny Story does share with Half Nelson and (especially) Sugar is an underlying bitterness to counterbalance all the sweet. Don't get me wrong - I prefer their previous two films too, but I did still enjoy this new one (even more so on a second viewing), and I am impressed with the way all three offer a 'talking cure' for the conventional expectations of (different) genres. But yeah - if you find a film grating, obviously there can be little room for its recovery...

delarge

3 years ago
*sorry to do this here*

Hey Anton, what happened with the LWL forum?

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
Nothing to do with me (I'm just someone who mouths, or at least used to mouth, off a lot on the forum) - but I believe it has been retired as part of an ongoing redesign of the site.

delarge

3 years ago
Shame, i know it had gone quiet but I thought it still had the legs/potential.

Adam LWLies

3 years ago
Hi delarge, just to let you know, the forum has gone in its current guise but we've got bigger and better things in the pipeline. All will be revealed soon so watch this space and please do keep up the debate here for the meantime.

delarge

3 years ago
Ah thanks for the reply, sounds interesting. I do appreciate the forum did go rather quiet in the end.
Thanks for the update and keep up the greatwork, the magazine is looking the best ever at present! Great job.
AND Apologies to the review of 'It's a Kind of Funny Story' for sabotaging the comments!
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