Movie Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story
By Matthew Huntley
October 19, 2010

He's doin' it wrong.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a film that speaks from the hearts of its filmmakers. It was written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and even though they adapted the screenplay from the novel by Ned Vizzini, it’s obvious they brought their own stories and experiences to the table. The film feels close to home and relays some of the universal truths about adolescents, namely the intense pressure they face from their parents, peers and the changing world - now more than ever. And in such a world, it’s unfortunate that some teenagers find suicide to be the most logical answer to solving life’s problems. It’s Kind of a Funny Story hopes to provide others.

But while the film’s heart is in the right place, its execution is not. As a film, it’s lackadaisical and presents its subject matter more or less through conventional means. It lacks the power to be inspired or truly profound, and even though it means well and has a sincere message that’s clear and important, we’ve heard it before.

The story centers on a 16-year-old named Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who tells us, “It all starts with a bridge,” referring to the bridge in his dream that he sometimes thinks about jumping off. That is, until he’s interrupted by his mom (Lauren Graham), dad (Jim Gaffigan) and little sister (Dana DeVestern), who tell him he shouldn’t be so selfish and ask, “Why don’t you think about others before taking your own life? What about us? And what are we going to with your bike?”

That pretty much sums up Craig’s problem: he’s too busy living for others when he should be living for himself. He recently stopped taking anti-depressants because he decided he didn’t need them anymore, but now he’s feeling suicidal and anxious about a summer school he fears he might not get into. And if he doesn’t get into summer school, he won’t be able to put it on his college resume; and if he can’t put it on his resume, he won’t get into a good college; and if he doesn’t get into a good college, he won’t get a good job; and if he doesn’t get a good job, he won’t have a good lifestyle; and if… The movie is all too accurate about how everyone, especially teenagers, believes that one experience will make or break their lives, as if everything boils down to one moment, to one thing. On the subject of pressure, the film knows what it’s talking about and there’s a scene where Craig imagines what might happen if he blows this one opportunity - it’s true, sad and funny all at once.

I admired the screenplay for not making Craig out to be the traditionally dark, angry teenager who’s always quiet and introverted, as if the teenagers who dress in black and look morbid are the only ones having suicidal thoughts. Bad feelings are relative and the film knows this. Ironically, Craig appears rather upbeat and pleasant, which suggests depressed people aren’t so easy to spot.

One Sunday morning at 5 a.m., he rides his bike to a New York City hospital and asks to be admitted into the psychiatric ward because he’s afraid he’ll hurt himself. He beseeches the doctor and hopes he’ll be given something right away to make his mental anguish and anxiety go away. But Craig fails to realize it’s not so easy. It’s only after he sees the mental ward that he wants to leave and thinks his coming was a mistake. Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis) says he has to stay the minimum five days before he can be released, which gives him just enough time to hear some conventional life lessons and make friends with the other colorful patients.

The first is Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who suffers from anger management and has trouble keeping his life together for his eight-year-old daughter. He gives Craig a tour and introduces him to Johnny (Adrian Martinez) and Humble (Matthew Maher), though their problems aren’t as apparent as others’. Noelle (Emma Roberts) is another suicidal patient who’s, whaddya know, just about Craig’s age. Although Emma Roberts is a fine actress, her role here is limited to the inevitable love interest and her character doesn’t go much further than that

Other patients include a schizophrenic (Lou Myers) who’s always yelling out random phrases; a woman nicknamed The Professor (Novella Nelson) who grew incessantly paranoid because of the Patriot Act; and a Jewish man (Daniel London) who took so much acid in one helping he now asks everybody to keep it down. Craig also has an Egyptian roommate named Muqtada (Bernard White), who hasn’t left his room in weeks (you get no credit if you think he’ll leave the room before Craig’s five days is up).

I know what you’re thinking, but this movie isn’t trying to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (how could it?); although it does seem inspired by it. What it lacks is an original edge and biting humor. Even though the characters are sweet and likable, the screenplay doesn’t provide them terribly interesting things to say and it hardly goes outside the scope of dialogue we expect to hear in a movie about a teenager staying in a mental hospital. As interesting as Craig’s situation is, the movie doesn’t take it anywhere new or exciting. It plays things too safely and I think the filmmakers thought they could get by on their theme and message alone, without writing in unique scenes that might have let the movie to stand out.

For instance, there is a blown opportunity when Craig must sing in front of the other patients, but rather than have Craig actually perform, the movie cuts to a fantasy sequence where he and the others are dressed as rock stars. Why not have the audacity and courage to show the real actors trying to sing instead of dressing them up and dubbing their voices? I guarantee that would have made the scene come alive greater than it does. As it is, the scene is only adequate when it should have been revelatory. And while I won’t reveal what song they sing, couldn’t they have chosen something more original?

It’s Kind of a Funny Story has good intentions, and although its flaws are harmless and inoffensive, it lacks a definite style and purpose. It proceeds in ways we expect and have seen before when movie teenagers are in need of wisdom to guide them through their rough years. But that’s the problem: when you have a story about a suicidal teenager who checks himself into a mental hospital, the last thing we want is for it to unfold in ways we expect. Its nature alone should have inspired the filmmakers to make something more special and meaningful.