Friday, October 1, 2010

Review of It's Kind of a Funny Story

Highly recommended. Please see it.

This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission.

Several weeks ago, I saw The Other Guys, the latest Will Ferrell comedy where the star dabbled in oblivious, self-serious irony for two hours. It was an amusing enough diversion, but I found myself laughing out of habit. OK, Ferrell is giving a serious explanation behind a "Female Body Inspector" mug; I should probably chortle right about now.

I knew then that Ferrell's days as a go-to comedy star were done. There's no shame in that. Comedians, for whatever reason (a lack of versatility, complacency), usually age in dog years. Eddie Murphy's mid-1980s explosiveness seems like it happened a billion years ago. Like Murphy, Adam Sandler has morphed into a family-approved goofball, though he occasionally deviates from his act (Funny People). Despite being brilliant and hilarious as a stand-up comic, Chris Rock will probably never find his niche as a movie star. Dane Cook, the poor bastard, was nearly upstaged by Jessica Simpson in Employee of the Month.

Zach Galifianakis, he of the sea captain beard and boxy frame, became the latest breath of fresh air on the comedy front after The Hangover was released last year. Over the next year or two, it'll be interesting to see what he does. He's on board for a sequel to The Hangover and he's reuniting with that film's director, Todd Phillips, for November's Due Date.

What's promising about Galifianakis is that he appears uninterested in lording his dry, absurd comedic brand over the masses at every opportunity. In his latest effort, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Galifianakis plays Bobby, a longtime mental patient who befriends and mentors Craig (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara), a super-stressed 16-year-old, after the teen convinces a psychiatrist to admit him. Bobby is a role that begs for a performer to hijack the script and turn it into a misguided comedic display. Galifianakis refuses to go big, and his sympathetic, subdued performance is a big part of the movie's heart.

Like any teenager, Craig has problems. Only these weigh him down like an anchor. Despite being in one of New York City's top-flight high schools, Craig has no skills that set him apart from his talented classmates. That makes his father's desire for him to apply to some kind of exclusive summer program all the more toxic. Craig's best friend, Aaron (Thomas Mann), is an athletic and academic giant with a sultry girlfriend (Zoƫ Kravitz) named Nia whom Craig constantly imagines in a bathtub. With so much to worry about and college barreling toward him, there's no time for Craig to enjoy being a kid, to embrace the possibilities that come with it. The present and the future, which must seem like a giant dead end, provide nothing but stress.

After getting admitted to Argenon Hospital in Brooklyn, it doesn't take Craig long to realize that he doesn't belong there. Hospital rules won't acknowledge his moment of clarity. He must spend a minimum of five days on the ward, which contains a mix of adults and teens. It's not so bad. Bobby immediately becomes Craig's guide and inadvertent life coach. And Craig finally gets attention from a pretty girl, Noelle (Emma Roberts), a 16-year-old cutter who has the musical tastes of an alt-weekly magazine editor. While he makes friends at his temporary home, Craig becomes a cult hero at his school. Nia, who digs how experienced he's become, suddenly finds Craig quite appealing.

There are times when It's Kind of a Funny Story veers dangerously toward Park Slope cool. Noelle seems more equipped to be the hot girl at the independent record store than a psych ward resident, and Jeremy Davies' hat-wearing staff worker looks like the kind of guy who spends his weekends shopping at upscale SoHo thrift stores. Working from Ned Vizzini's semi-autobiographical book, writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) never portray Argenon as a trendy destination. It's where a scared, confused kid finds himself, and the directors' portrayal of that is triumphant without being hokey When Craig is required to sing Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," it's presented as a glammed-out rock opera. Craig's considerable drawing abilities unfurl gigantic and dream-like, as if they can't be contained. Craig's narration is accompanied by flashy images (e.g., Aaron's list of accomplishments), and colorful still shots. It's all dramatic and over-the-top, but that's how a teenager's mind operates. There are few shades of gray.

Still, Boden and Fleck never overplay their hand. This is undoubtedly a feel-good story, but there's a refreshing pragmatic streak, which makes Galifianakis' stellar performance so important. He's funny, but we can tell Bobby has suffered through one too many setbacks—he's tried to commit suicide six times, his wife has no use for him. There's little time left for comebacks. In Craig, Bobby sees someone who has too much potential to share his path. Galifianakis' gentle, weary approach expresses a cold truth: He has just enough energy left to steer Craig in the right direction. "You're cool, you're smart, you're talented," Bobby tells Craig. "Do you know what I'd do to be you for a day?" If given that chance, Bobby adds, he'd live life like it meant something.

Galifianakis isn't the only cast member who delivers the goods. Gilchrist manages to be brittle without being whiny (a major accomplishment), and Viola Davis (Doubt) is properly warm and reassuring as the psychiatrist with whom Craig reaches a breakthrough. Roberts is fresh-faced and delightful, just like aunt Julia was back in the day. Now that he's a comedy heavyweight, someone who could impose his will on a movie, Galifianakis' fine work matters the most. He doesn't aim for laughs; he doesn't resort to a routine. He just acts. That bodes well for It's Kind of a Funny Story and for Galifianakis' future. [PG-13]

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