Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story IS kind of funny, and kind of inspired, and mostly kind of good. A Cukoo’s Nest for teens, the movie tells the story of Craig, a stressed out high school student who thinks he’s suicidal, so he checks himself into a mental ward and learns how much he has to live for. Yes, it is that cheesy, and yes it takes all the easy outs you’d think this scenario would offer, but ultimately Craig’s story is earnest, a cinematic hug for those working through a seemingly universal teenage depression. It’s easy to forgive a film its clichés if it means well, if it takes pride in them, levies them to build something bigger and more important – cliché’s, after all, often translate into honesty. Funny Story could have been transcendental. That it never finds the spirit to be so is ultimately kind of a let down.

Written and directed by the Indie Power Twins Activated team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar), Funny Story stars relative newcomer Keir Gilchrist as its every-kid lead. In 2008’s The Rocker, Gilchrist played a character titled Moby Type Kid, so that should give you an idea of his particular cinematic presence – he’s a low-key outcast, with character in his face and little in terms of athletic skill, which in the idie world makes him more “real”.

His Craig is weltering under the weight of pressures both modern and classic teen; pressures of school, girls, anxiety medication and post 9/11 paranoia. His parents just don’t understand, and his best friend seems to have all the answers. He’s got it tough. Then he meets Bobby, a homeless estranged father played by Zach Galifianakis. And Noelle, a pretty girl with scratches on her face and scars on her wrist (played by Emma Roberts). And his shut-in roommate. And the tranny with identity issues. And so on and so forth.

You get the idea – they teach him how to choose life, he helps them make the best of theirs. The movie uses its psych ward characters to build Craig up, to get inside his problems and help him evolve. But we get little if any insight into these characters themselves – it’s as if they exist only for Craig, which is a choice, but I’m not sure a good one.

It contributes to an overall lack of spirit. Gilchrist might be “real”, but he is rarely cinematic, and only occasionally breaks free of his wooden performance – a problem in a story about learning out to cut loose and live a little. The film is prone to fantasy sequences and quick-cut montages highlighting anxiety or excitement, but these sequences don’t flow, or lift us up and away from the moment as they are meant to. The pacing is all wrong, as if they were edited by a Film 101 student.

But most importantly, the films itself fails to carry us, to take us on a moving and uplifting journey as it means to. The story feels sloppy and unfinished, and the vibe is lazy. The whole package feels undeveloped, talent and potential untapped.

Still, Funny Story ekes a living out of its earnestness – it’s a pleasant if unfulfilling experience, bolstered by Roberts’ quirky cuteness, a strong soundtrack, and an underplaying Galifianakis. The shortcomings of Gilchrist (not a bad actor, but also not a star) provide an opportunity for the usually over-the-top Galifianakis to steal the show, and he does so, but this time with subtlety. He taps into the mentality of the have-nots, of a man who once maybe had a chance in life, but instead saw life pass him by.

“You’re cool,” he says to Craig. “You’re smart. You’re talented. You have a family that loves you. You know what I would do just to be you for just a day? I would… I would do so much. I would… I don’t know. I’d just… I’d just live. Like it meant something.” It’s a powerful moment, presented from a point of loss, from the crushing sobriety of it, by a man who usually gives us so much life. And it stands out in a film that too often feels flat and emotionless.

It’s worth noting that this is an adaptation of the novel by Ned Vizzini, a novel teens champion for its accuracy, its edginess (those scratches on Noelle’s face? In the book she scarred her cheek with scissors in a form of self-mutilation), and its pension for sex, drugs and rock and roll. You can feel these things in the fabric of the film, but they don’t really surface. It’s Kind of a Funny Story feels like a movie THEY want you to love, telling the story THEY think is real. It feels neutered by “the man,” and for a film from the people behind Half Nelson, that’s just shocking.

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