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Movie Review

It's Kind of a Funny Story

A gentle, feel-good kind of ‘Funny’: Teen angst played for (sympathetic) laughs

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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I guess it had to happen. With “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,’’ the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck go amiably soft on us. I wouldn’t call it a sell-out, but the latest from the duo who gave us the taut 2006 character drama “Half Nelson’’ and the wrenching 2009 minor-league baseball saga “Sugar’’ is their approximation of a Hollywood movie: A feel-good teen fable about a New York City mental ward. In their defense, few studio directors would be able to bring the warmly democratic touch to this subject that Fleck and Boden manage without even seeming to try. At the same time, you sort of wish they’d tried harder.

Based on a well-regarded 2006 autobiographical novel by the young writer Ned Vizzini, “Funny Story’’ is about what happens when a privileged son of Park Slope, Brooklyn, hits the wall. Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist, Toni Collette’s son on TV’s “United States of Tara’’) feels like he can’t keep up at his super-overachieving Manhattan high school (Vizzini went to Stuyvesant). He’s crushing on the girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) of his best friend (Thomas Mann). And he’s dreaming about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Arriving at a hospital early one Sunday morning desperate for help, Craig gets more than he bargained for when he’s sent to 3 North, the adult psych ward, for a mandatory one-week stay. But I have to be at school tomorrow! he yawps. Tough, responds the ward’s head doctor (Viola Davis). Welcome home, says Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), the ward’s orderly. Wait, Bobby just likes to wear scrubs; he’s actually one of the patients.

So is Noelle (Emma Roberts), a pretty, sardonic teenager with a Stooges T-shirt and scars on her wrists. Other patients in Craig’s new community of lovable misfits include his roommate Muqtada (Bernard White), a depressed Egyptian who never leaves his bed; Solomon (Daniel London), a Hasidic Jew who freaked out after too many hits of acid; the tender Humble (Matthew Maher); and the hostile Johnny (Adrian Martinez). But Bobby takes the cake for sheer charismatic dysfunctionality — he’s the Randle Patrick McMurphy of 3 North.

Which makes Craig his Billy Bibbit, I suppose, except that “It’s Kind of a Funny Story’’ is more interested in gentle human comedy and easy life lessons than rebellion and tragedy. (Tellingly, there’s no Nurse Ratched here.) Boden and Fleck try their hand at what are, for them, whimsical touches: deadpan freeze frames, candy-colored fantasy flashbacks, and a full-on musical staging of Queen’s “Under Pressure,’’ with all the 3 North patients and staff taking part. It’s the sort of thing that “Glee’’ does twice an episode without breaking a sweat.

Maybe that’s being mean, but it hints at what’s largely missing from “It’s Kind of a Funny Story’’: genuine emotional pain. Still, the movie’s an often charming example of “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ Lite, and I imagine that any teenagers who feel misunderstood and overwhelmed (oh, right, that would be all of them) will relate to Craig’s upper-middle-class angst. He’s a kid whose childhood innocence ended with 9/11, global warming, and relentless college prep. You feel for him even as you can’t help thinking about the people with real problems.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this review incorrectly characterized the relationship between the film’s directors. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are not married.

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IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY

Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, based on a novel by Ned Vizzini

Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square, Waltham Embassy, suburbs

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic issues, sexual material, drug content, language)

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