By: Roxana Hadadi
Movies set in mental asylums or wards are, inevitably, always depressing and not for children. Films like 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted” and this year’s “Shutter Island” were all enlightening or interesting, but definitely not fit for kids or teens. No matter how handsome Leonardo DiCaprio is, there’s no way any child could see “Shutter Island” and then not have tons of nightmares.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” though, throws a wrench in that Hollywood truism. A touching, if a bit expected, spin on the “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Catcher in the Rye” formula, the film is based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, who was briefly hospitalized for depression in 2004. Vizzini wrote the book about his experiences in the hospital, and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” follows that route, focusing on Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a 16-year-old kid living in Manhattan who becomes overwhelmed by his father’s academic expectations and his classmates’ competitive nature and decides to check himself into a hospital when the idea of killing himself doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Forced to stay in the hospital for five days, the minimum time required, Craig begins to realize his problems aren’t that bad – but it’s up to him to do something about them.
The film begins on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Craig is pondering whether he wants to live or die. When he decides to jump, everything freezes and first-person narration kicks in: Craig has had this dream before, but he usually wakes up “in a sweaty panic. … This time was different.” Realizing that the suicidal thoughts are more serious than ever, Craig bikes over to his local hospital, admits to psychiatrist Dr. Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi) that he went off his Zoloft medication three weeks ago and insists that he wants to feel better – and just like that, Dr. Mahmoud signs him into the hospital’s mental ward, 3 North.
Because the hospital’s teen quarters are under renovation, Craig will have to stay in the adult psychiatric area, hospital staff member Smitty (Jeremy Davies) says – and immediately, Craig begins second-guessing his choice. His roommate Muqtada (Bernard White) has never left their small living space, refuses to talk and smells horrible. He doesn’t like how quickly fellow patient Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, impressive in a serious role) is able to grasp what’s bothering him – “You look stressed out for 16,” Bobby notes. And he’s worried his best friend Aaron (Thomas Mann) and Aaron’s girlfriend, Nia (Zoë Kravitz), who he’s been obsessed with for two years, will find out where he is and tell the whole school.
The only saving grace for Craig is that he’ll be out of the ward on Thursday, a mere 120 hours away. So until then, he tries to make the most of the experience, striking up a friendship with fellow teen Noelle (Emma Roberts), pursuing his interest in art during the community’s creative sessions and acting as a confidante for Bobby, who hopes to move out of the ward into a group home so he can see his 8-year-old daughter more often. With nothing to do on the ward but spend time with each other, Craig begins to appreciate the other patients there with him – but everything becomes jeopardized when his outside life starts creeping in, forcing Craig to realize that staying in the hospital isn’t just a free pass for life.
The film is built on the strength of both its actors and its interactive storytelling style, which mimics films like “Easy A” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” in its direct dialogue with the audience. Gilchrist has played a tortured teen before, as misunderstood gay outcast Marshall on Showtime’s “The United States of Tara,” and he does a great job seeming frustrated and confused, unsure of why everything comes so easily to his friends when he struggles to get the grades, impress his parents and ensure a “good lifestyle” (a joke that hits its stride when you see Marshall’s dreams of being president, having two girlfriends and appearing in a full-length fur coat on MTV’s “Cribs”) for himself. Just like Jim Stark and Holden Caulfield before him, Craig isn’t sure why he’s upset; he just knows he is, and the struggle to fully understand what worries him so much is one Gilchrist handles well.
And then there’s Galifianakis, who we’re so used to seeing as an abrupt, absurd weirdo in flicks like “The Hangover” and the upcoming “Due Date.” Here, he proves real acting chops as Bobby, a friendly but somewhat self-loathing patient who forms an immediate attachment with Craig but can’t seem to get his life together for his own daughter. During a freak-out brought on by Bobby’s feelings of inadequacy and a basketball game against Craig, Galifianakis is fantastic, simultaneously tortured and wise while maintaining the sassiness that drew so many laughs in “The Hangover.”
Those performances, aided by film tricks like flashbacks of Craig’s childhood, an animated portion that displays his sketching and painting talent and a hilarious karaoke version of David Bowie’s and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” make “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” just that: A mix of humor and drama that hits the right emotional chord when it needs to while staying believable. And though there’s cursing, sexual content, drug use, potty and vomit humor and serious themes, it’s a welcome change for films about the mental ward – cutesy, yes, but charming in a way most films about teens’ problems aren’t.
Check out other movie reviews for this weekend.