Thursday, October 21, 2010

IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY is Kind Of a Cool Movie, Says I.

There's a lot to like about IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. It has a great cast, a quirky/funny style, and an upbeat message about getting over angst and depression and living your life. This is one of those rare movies that manages to be both dark and bleak and yet ultimately somewhat heartwarming. It's a trick that films like Little Miss Sunshine pulled off to perfection, but that most movies have a hard time with. It's Kind of a Funny Story doesn't quite reach the heights of the aforementioned film, but it gets the job done. This is one I can definitely recommend.

It's Kind of a Funny Story tells the tale of Craig, a depressed teenager with suicidal thoughts. Craig suffers from an acute case of teen angst. He's from an upper middle class family, lives in New York, has decent parents, some friends, etc. And yet, he's anxious, panicky, and depressed. He has a maddening crush on his friend Nia, who's dating his best friend. He's nervous about whether he'll get into a prestigious summer school program that his parents are pushing on him. Those are really the extent of his big problems, and it's easy on one hand to scoff and say "this kid's got it alright." But, that's kind of the point of the movie. We've all had times where things in our lives that may not be such a big deal take on a disproportionately crushing weight, and all of the day to day stuff gets to feel overwhelming. On some level, all of us can probably relate to Craig. And sometimes, a little perspective is just what the doctor ordered. For Craig, that new perspective comes when he checks himself into a mental hospital. He does so thinking it's akin to going in for a quick doctor's visit, not realizing he's just signed himself up for a minimum five-day stay. Suddenly, Craig is locked away with a bunch of full-blown mental patients, people with serious issues who make his problems look small in comparison.

Now, this premise could very easily have taken a turn for the hackneyed, but a couple of things keep the film from going that route. First and foremost, I have to acknowledge the fine performance from Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, the tragi-comic mental patient who befriends Craig. I was very curious to see Zach take on this role, because it's a very funny character, but also one with some real dramatic moments. And, impressively, Galifianakis nails it. This is really strong stuff from him - maybe one or two memorable moments away from being Oscar-worthy. But the guy clearly has chops, and in many ways he carries the movie. Of course, it helps that the supporting cast is similarly pretty great. I was particularly excited to see Jeremy Davies pop up. Sure, Davies (best known of late as Faraday from LOST) is basically reprising his role from Lost, but he's such a compelling actor that I didn't really mind. The rest of the mental patients are an interesting bunch, with several actors putting in funny and memorable performances.

The two actors who did feel a bit wasted were Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's parents. I was excited to see both pop up, but they unfortunately get the short shrift in terms of character development and overall screen time. This is actually somewhat of a detriment to the story, too, because Craig's parents come off as blank slates despite the fact that his shaky relationship with them is a major plot point in the film.

As for the other leads, I have to admit that Emma Roberts has a ton of star-potential. She seems natural and at ease in her role here as a troubled teen who forms a bond with Craig. I can see her really breaking out and having the same level of success as her famous aunt. As for Keir Gilchrist as Craig ... he does a nice job. He relies a little too much on forced awkwardness though ... occasionally it gets annoying. He stumbles over his words to the point of absurdity at times, though I guess that might have been an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers. Still, Gilchrist is good enough that he's believable as a teen who we can empathize with even as we realize that he's got it pretty good, all things considered.

And there, I suppose, is where the movie sometimes stumbles. The script tries a little too hard to go from black comedy to fairytale, and sometimes the transition is jarring. The biggest problem might just be the central relationship between Gilchrist and Roberts - whereas other aspects of the movie feel real enough, their budding teen romance is way too contrived to fully buy into. One byproduct of this is that their fairytale relationship sort of undermines the point of the movie. Of course Craig is going to end up happy and well-adjusted - by the end of the movie he's got two girls fighting over him! I think the movie would have been a bit stronger if it was more about Craig learning to cope with things NOT 100% going his way. Again, the movie, in its third act, just becomes a little too Hollywood for its own good, and it does so at the expense of a script that is otherwise pretty clever in parts. There is some real implied darkness with Craig, with Zach Galifianakis's character, with Emmar Roberts' character ... but the movie is never quite bold enough to really go all the way down the rabbit hole.

That said, It's Kind of a Funny Story has some really triumphant, fun moments. I was prepared to cringe during a scene in which Craig leads the mental patients in a rendition of "Under Pressure," but found myself totally caught up in the ensuing musical montage. In fact, the film uses music really, really well throughout. There's a scene set to an instrumental version of The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" that is really effective, for example. And a climactic scene involving a dance party set to Egyptian dance music is similarly memorable.

Even if it gets a little contrived and/or cheesy at times, I still came away from It's Kind of a Funny Story really satisfied. It's a little movie with a nice message that's well worth hearing, and it mixes comedy with genuine emotion and darkness more effectively than most movies are able to. It's a breakout performance from Zach Galifianakis, who shows that he can do a lot more than just goofy sidekick roles. Finally, although it sounds cheesy to say it, I did feel like the movie captures a certain sort of Gen Y teen angst that I haven't seen a lot of in films. In our hyperconnected, hypermedicated, oversaturated world, how do you cope with the sheer sensory overload of it all? We all have those "Under Pressure" moments, and I think the movie does a nice job of encapsulating that feeling, while also doing its part to embrace the need to go just a little bit crazy every once in a while. Very much recommended.

My Grade: B+

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