Believe it or not, I’ve actually been institutionalized (albeit for only a short period of time) during one part of my life, which I’d like to call “The Dark Ages,” simply for dramatic effect. Now whether you consider me a sociopath or just another struggling artiste following this review, I can’t be certain. However, one thing that I’m quite sure of is that the conditions definitely weren’t as nice as portrayed in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s latest film, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” which stars Keir Gilchrist as Craig, a clinically-depressed teenager who checks himself into an adult psychiatric facility in order to refresh his life. But before I continue on with the review, for those who are wondering about my mental stability, let me reassure you that I never intended to go on a murderous rampage and that I’m not schizophrenic (although at times it may seem that way), instead it was for a suicide attempt.
“It starts with a bridge…,” utters Craig as he hops off his bicycle and begins to climb the infrastructure of the Brooklyn Bridge. As he walks along the steel bar, as if it were a tight-rope, his mother (Lauren Graham), father (Jim Gaffigan), and sister (Dana DeVestern) suddenly call out to him. They shout, “You’re just going to leave that bicycle here?” Of course, Craig is perplexed by the question; why would they care about something as miniscule as a bike when their own flesh and blood is about to kill himself? Well, it definitely seems silly, but this of course, is a pivotal scene. Although, in a couple frames we find out that this was all one of Craig’s dreams, this one sequence provides the initial framing device for one of the film’s themes – loss. By including this scene, Boden and Fleck (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) spell out the selfishness of suicide and how a person from clinically depression just ignores things like family in order to stop their own suffering.
But Craig calls out for help and finds himself in a psych ward, where he doesn’t escape the bureaucracy of everyday living and is forced to sign a ton of lengthy paper-work after telling the worker at the hospital’s front desk that he wants to kill himself. While waiting, he meets up with Bobby (a surprisingly tame Zach Galifianakis), who dons a doctor’s coat and nonchalantly asks Craig for a cigarette. We later find out that Bobby is actually one of the ward’s patients, and he turns out to be an almost fatherly-figure during Craig’s five day “vacation” in the institution.
“Buncha’ nutjobs in here,” proclaims Bobby, which shows his almost two-faced approach to the ward. On one hand, Bob is quite the saint and he does try to help the other patients, but on the other, Bobby separates himself from the rest of the group. This is most explicitly exemplified in a scene in which the patients have a group therapy session with Dr. Eden Minerva (Viola Davis). During this part of the film, Bobby puts on a snarky attitude and even resorts to insulting his fellow patients. But regardless of the character’s state of mind, which fluctuates from slick suaveness to sheer frustration, Galifianakis performs incredibly and remains surprisingly likable throughout the entirety of the film’s running time.
As a quick note, Viola Davis also lends an excellent performance as the wise and kind yet at the same time serious Dr. Minerva, and Boden and Fleck make excellent use of her as the emotional rock of the cast.
This is where my personal accolade comes into place; the entire presentation of the psych ward is way too far-fetched, however, this is a comedy which means truths are meant to be stretched, but just speaking from personal experience, I almost couldn’t stomach it. First and foremost, no psych ward is going to be so calm and tranquil. Instead of meeting someone like Dr. Minerva or Bobby, I met deplorable drug-addicts, workers who literally treated patients like slaves and had no respect for their well-being, and a team of psychologists which probed and tested on me like I was some sort of lab-rat. In conclusion, did it make me feel better about myself? Hell no. But did it make me feel warm and fuzzy? Ah….no comment (which of course means, yes it did but I’m just too shy to admit it).
However, as much as I liked Bobby and Dr. Minerva, I could not stand Craig as much. I did manage to relate to him on the struggles he has with his best-friends, Aaron (Thomas Mann) and Nia (Zoë Kravitz), because for one, I know how it feels to be acquaintances with some dude (who you just happen to think is a complete-jerk but you hang out with him anyway) that’s dating the woman of your dreams! I also know how pathetic it makes you feel when your best-friend has some sort of uber-talent at scoring friends and maintaining popularity, meanwhile you’re sitting there like a court-jester. But the reason that I didn’t find Craig as easy to sympathize with as the other characters is because nothing separates him from a normal teenager, who god-knows suffers from tantrums of random depression. There is simply no dramatic or even sort-of cinematic reason to separate Craig from the rest of the depressed chumps that clog up High School hallways.
I also didn’t find the chemistry between Craig and Noelle (Emma Roberts), a fellow patient at the ward who happens to be Craig’s age, to be all that convincing. Although there are sparks of romance between the two, there really isn’t enough for the entire love-story to be all-too believable or even memorable.
On top of that, there are a number of scenes that just seem too forced and tacked on, of which includes a sequence in which the patients cover Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Don’t get me wrong, this scene does sport impressive stage and costume design, but it’s just superfluous and doesn’t contribute anything to the film itself and just serves as a poor attempt at being cutesy, hip, and artistic.
But by the end of the film, a lot of the characters tend to grow on you, which makes it quite upsetting when we’re forced to say good-bye.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” majestically sidesteps any psych-ward clichés, but at the same time remains just as the title implies – kind of a funny story, which is disappointing considering the caliber of talent between the actors and the directors.
. . .
Follow Mariusz Zubrowski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ItsJustMariusz.