"I remember it as a tiny grove. Now it resembles a forest."
It's Kind of a Funny Story starts out strong, ends up meandering for a while, and then eventually coasts to an ending. We know it's the ending mostly because the credits roll. None of the issues that started the film's momentum in the first act are resolved or dealt with except in the most cursory ways. The film begins with sixteen year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) having a dream in which he rides his bike to the Brooklyn Bridge, climbs over the cables, and prepares to jump. He's interrupted by his family who proceed to harangue him about how he didn't think of how suicide would affect them. Not because of the impact of his death, but because he just left his bike on the bridge, and it was very selfish not to consider that they paid good money for the bike and that one day his little sister will need that bike, etc. Craig wakes up, goes to a hospital and checks himself into a psych ward because he feels like committing suicide.
Once inside of course, shit gets real, as the Internet assures me kids say these days. Craig is horrified to find that not only are they going to call his parents, but that they're not just going to give him a pill and send him home. Getting yourself checked into a mental ward for being a suicide risk means that you're staying in for five days at a minimum. He then gets to meet the assorted colorful side characters that are mandatory in any film set in a psych ward. There is the transvestite, the obligatory schizophrenic shouting funny things at nobody, the threatening Orthodox Jew who gets in the face of anyone who speaks on the phone too loudly and Zach Galifianakis playing the sad clown variation on his usual character. Oh and Emma Roberts is there too, because whenever you have a quiet and nervous teenage boy there needs to be someone his own age to be thunderously quirky and cute because otherwise who would he kiss at the end of the film?
The motley assortment of ward denizens manages to avoid the worst cliches of stories set in such places, but in doing so cuts out everything that makes the setting interesting. The characters are quirky and harmless, which makes them mildly entertaining while gelding both the comedic and dramatic potential of seriously psychologically compromised individuals. Take the darkness, whether tragic or humorous, out of a psych ward movie and all that you're left with are wacky sitcom characters.
But the problem is that at no point does the movie ever convince the audience that Craig's problems are significant in any way. Yeah he's stressed as hell at his fancy ass little school with his overachieving friends and feels like his head is going to explode. I'm not making light of his problems, or that such things haven't driven some people to suicidal depression, to the point that they need real help. But at no point do I buy in the least that these problems have pushed this character to that point. It would be one thing if the movie decided to play it so that Craig got a sense of perspective from seeing people with real problems, but it insists on sticking to the line that Craig has a real problem and needs real help. That might be believable if we at any point in the entire film ever saw Craig actually sad or frustrated or angry.
Or put it this way, with another devastating spoiler: the kid's solution is to go to art school instead of becoming a fancy lawyer or businessman. Really? That's it? If the solution to the horrifying problems that land you in a psych ward is to change majors, then let me tell you kid, you don't really have fucking problems. As it was, I kept waiting for somebody to Swearengen the whiny little yuppie spawn: "Pain or damage don't end the world, or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man -- and give some back."
Galifianakis' character has tried to kill himself eight times. Why? He doesn't want to say, so they move on. Emma Roberts' character has covered her arms and face with scars from cutting and trying to kill herself. Why? Well, Craig doesn't ask because he figured she'd tell him if she ever wanted him to know. Your main character has uninteresting problems. Your side characters presumably have interesting ones. Why in the world would you insist as a story teller to dwell endlessly on the former and not even pay lip service to the latter? A movie set in a psych ward succeeds when it gazes into the abyss not when it gazes into its own navel.
And it's a shame because the cast is genuinely talented with no one just coasting through for the paycheck or chewing scenery for the award season. Keir Gilchrist plays the lead just right, managing to actually act, without being either a caricature of a teenage boy or just falling into the Michael Cera trap that this role resembles from a distance. Lauren Graham plays Lorelai-light in the few minutes of screen time she has, but other than getting in a solid joke in the opening bit doesn't get to do much in her couple of other scenes besides nod and be a concerned mom. Aasif Mandvi is utterly wasted in the one scene he gets ... to the point of it being simply a baffling casting choice. Why bother casting a Daily Show correspondent (who gets 7th billing on the credits) to play a doctor in a two minute set up scene with no humor? Hell, it's not even for drama, it's just a bridge scene between other scenes that actually matter.
It's Kind of a Funny Story is reviewed perfectly by its own title, particularly if you prefaced it with a "meh." It's entertaining enough, but has no depth of feeling that would make it a compelling story. Don't give me a PG-13 psych ward movie (and this might be the lightest PG-13 I've ever seen). That's just not trying.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.