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It’s kind of a sad story, actually

Published: November 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is a mish-mash of comedic and dramatic components. The film parades itself as a romantic comedy, while giving the audience a glimpse of a darker underlying story. The film’s extremely stylized format, while fitting for a romantic comedy, falters under the weight of the heavy issues that the film brings up but ultimately fails to confront.

In “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” based on a young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, neurotic teen Craig Gilner, checks himself into a hospital’s psychiatric ward because he is contemplating suicide. Right away the film’s quirky, dark humor makes light of this grim situation. In the opening scene, Craig stands on the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, a gray and dreamlike construction in the film, after deciding to kill himself. As he walks to the edge of the bridge, he imagines that his family is scolding him for being so selfish.

Yet, the family’s sudden appearance is amusing because his mother (Lauren Graham) and his father (Jim Gaffigan) deliver their lines with a gloss of sarcasm. Gesturing to the bike Craig had ridden to the bridge, the mother ignores Craig’s precarious situation and says, “What were you going to do about the bike, Craig?” They are annoyed at Craig, they think he is being ridiculous.

When Craig walks into the emergency room of the hospital after this suicide attempt and tells a nurse that he is thinking about killing himself, she hands him a clipboard with a form to fill out and carries on with her gossipy phone conversation. The film’s lighthearted tone is a jarring contrast to the serious topics that it is dealing with.

The contrast is especially apparent when considering the subtle acting of the film’s leads and the stylized scenes that take place entirely in Craig’s head. There are several points in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” where the film freezes and Craig narrates an imagined scene. In one scene, he imagines what his life would be if it were to go according to his parents’ plans for him: Craig at a top college, as president, as a rich player with a beautiful girlfriend. These scenes are shot in a kitschy way, with the stop-frame lead and Craig speaking directly to the audience. This style is kind of like cotton candy: fun but lacking substance.

They don’t make sense when you consider how the characters are portrayed. Keir Gilchrist as Craig is convincing as a teenager breaking under the weight of a variety of pressures that his family, friends and school puts on him. He does this in a subtle manner, communicating his character’s inner turmoil through his body language—he sits with his body crunched together like he’s about to fall apart if he isn’t too careful. He trails off when he speaks, failing at expressing himself and using “you know” every other word. He is vulnerable and it is easy to feel sympathetic towards him.

Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, a long-term resident of the ward and Craig’s guide to this bizarre place, also puts on an impressive performance. He makes odd statements in a dead-pan way and, while the things he says are ridiculous, Galifianakis toes the line against absurdity. While he behaves like a clown, there is a vulnerability in his performance that hints to the audience that Bobby’s happy exterior is masking a deep sadness and anger. While the film is telling Craig’s story, Galifianakis’ character is really the film’s heart.

While the stylized scenes, for the most part, do not complement these performances, one scene where the contrast works, is when Craig and his fellow patients sing Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Everyone is glammed up in glitter and feathers on a spotlit stage, as they perform the rock song. This scene works because it takes advantage of the conceit that it takes place in Craig’s mind. The scene revels in the fact that this is his imagination and does not take place in reality. In his imagination, everyone is a rock star and gives a perfect performance. The reason the other imagined scenes falter is because they do not go far enough, they do not come across as a scene from Craig’s head, but rather as a stylistic decision made by the director.

Ultimately the light-hearted tone doesn’t work because of the glimpses into the film’s darker issues. Craig realizes during his stay at the psych ward that he is extremely fortunate and that he is not as bad off as the majority of patients in the ward, particularly Bobby. In a climatic scene Bobby says, “Do you know what I would give to be you for one day? I would do so much. I would live.”

In comparison to the man who will not leave his room, to the schizophrenic, the woman whose extreme paranoia makes her think that all of the phones are bugged, Craig’s problems seem minuscule. What the film hints at, though, but does not fully address, is that while Craig’s problems are not as large, his situation is still not normal. He is still clinically depressed. All of his friends are suffering from depression. There is something wrong in society when talented, intelligent teenagers with supportive friends and family, are still unhappy. Instead, the film focuses on the love story between Craig and a fellow patient Noel.

Although the film is a bit choppy and uneven in tone, it’s still worth seeing for the acting and for the compelling problems that the film hints at but does not delve into.