To make the obvious joke: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” actually isn’t. A chronicle of suicidal tendencies, the core of the picture is driven by a huge reservoir of sadness, emerging from wounded people working slowly to deduce their failures. The title should be an ironic brand, but directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck attempt to liven up the premise with sunshine, assembling an eager beaver of a picture, looking to treat mental illness with a preciousness that often burns like shock treatment.
A teenager living with pressures from home, school, and girls, Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is looking to kill himself. Checking into a mental hospital to acquire pills that will set him right again, Craig finds himself actually committed, sent for five days into an adult ward teeming with eccentric, damaged personalities. While assessing the gravity of the situation, Craig meets Bobby (Zach Galafianakis), a deceptively playful patient with dark secrets, who takes Craig under his wing while the boy acclimates to the routine of his surroundings. Evaluating his stress and gifts, Craig soon bonds with the community, finding a glimmer of hope again, helped along by Noelle (Emma Roberts), another suicide case who finds comfort in the teen’s supportive manner.
The directors behind “Half Nelson” and the baseball drama “Sugar,” Fleck and Boden always seem to find themselves in possession of great material, yet lack the needed cinematic strength to create riveting cinema. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” suffers from the same undernourished appearance, submitting a deeply felt idea of a boy facing an adulthood he doesn’t want, turning to self-termination not as an exit, but a pronounced threat to create a disturbance that will throw off the scent of failure. Adapted by the filmmakers from the novel by Ned Vizzini, the picture opens with a sophisticated sense of observation, following Craig as he chooses to be committed, only to find out precisely what a stay inside a mental hospital means.
The process of psychological rehabilitation leads to uneasy tonal shifts, with heavy dramatics and light comedy competing for screentime, funneled through Galafianakis’s performance, which volleys back and forth between the actor’s established goofballery and a more sincere tone of pain, providing the film with actual emotional weight.
Craig and Bobby are complex characters with different degrees of despair, but the directors elect to keep the film as fluffed as possible, assembling a community of comical patients to make the whole picture remain approachable, even turning to animation and a lip-synch fantasy performance to sustain a Skittles mood to Craig’s stay, keeping viewers away from the bleak reality of the environment. It’s irritating to watch the film blister its feet in a mad dance to sustain some gaiety, especially when the character’s actual concerns about life show refreshingly gritty dramatic promise before they’re swept aside to make room for some dreary improvisation.
Formula soon swallows the picture, finding Craig caught between his object of desire (Zoe Kravitz) and the post-wrist-slashing peace of a Noelle, a like-minded soul. It leads to an insipid break-up-to-make-up scenario that shatters the picture’s concentration, pulling Craig away from a natural confrontation with his troubles to play up a romance that bears little fruit. However, distractions are what “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” excels at, removing a critical sense of authenticity to Craig’s crisis to create a feeble sitcom.