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‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’ Coasts on the Charm of its Cast

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CHICAGO – Though “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is the third feature film from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, it’s the duo’s first picture that feels like it was made by first-time filmmakers. While their previous two features, “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,’ were entrenched in documentary realism and exuded the assurance and nuance of master filmmakers, this latest effort feels oddly programmed for mainstream consumption.

The ingredients are all here for a typical Sundance smash: relatable angst, quirky mental hospitals, outlandish fantasy sequences, and teenage characters with self-consciously sophisticated vocabularies (the 16-year-old protagonist says that he used to think art was little more than “bourgeoise decadence”). Many young filmmakers have utilized these formulaic elements as a sort of artistic crutch, but Fleck and Boden seem to be experimenting within them, injecting the worn cliches with newfound freshness. It’s a bit of a letdown to see these major talents tread commercial waters, but “Story” succeeds in its simple yet tricky goal to make the audience feel genuinely uplifted, as opposed to manipulated.

Best known as Toni Collette’s smart-mouthed son on “The United States of Tara,” Keir Gilchrist proves to be a thoroughly charming leading man in the role of Craig, a troubled teen crumbling under the anxiety of an increasingly overwhelming world. After contemplating suicide, he decides to check himself into a mental health clinic, seeking a quick prescription for his problems. Instead, he’s ordered by the head psychiatrist (the perpetually underused Viola Davis) to stay for a minimum of five days. And since the youth ward is closed, Craig is ushered into the adult ward, where he befriends a series of eccentric patients, including a scruffy oddball named Bobby. Craig first meets Bobby in the waiting room. The stranger’s white coat and inquisitive questions lead Craig to believe that he’s talking to a doctor. And since Bobby is played by Zach Galifianakis, the audience expects the scene to take a left turn into creepy, awkward humor on the level of “Between Two Ferns” (the hilarious web series of staged interviews conducted by Galifianakis).

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on the set of their new film, It's Kind of a Funny Story.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on the set of their new film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
Photo credit: Focus Features

It’s bizarre to see a comedian as peculiar and unpredictable as Galifianakis instantly become as overexposed as Betty White, thanks to the manufactured “sleeper” known as “The Hangover.” Galifianakis was to that comedy what Johnny Depp was to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” If he wasn’t in it, the film wouldn’t have been a hit. Galifianakis’s random, ludicrous, gleefully deranged ad-libs provided the picture with its only real laughs, endearing a wide audience to a comic best known for his work as an underground satirist. Anyone familiar with his specialized brand of humor will initially have a tough time accepting the softer, sweeter side of a man who once asked Michael Cera to tickle his thigh. Yet for perhaps the first time in his film career, Galifianakis manages to truly disappear within his character, resisting nearly every temptation to chew the scenery. Fleck and Boden take full advantage of the weariness in his eyes, allowing it to convey the haunted soul of a man whose depression has built a wall between him and his loved ones. The role requires far more than mere punch lines, and Galifianakis is more than up to the challenge, delivering what is easily his most accomplished work to date.

Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis star in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s It's Kind of a Funny Story.
Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis star in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
Photo credit: Focus Features

That’s not to say the film isn’t also kind of funny. Humor has always been present in Fleck and Boden’s work (“Half Nelson”’s interrupting cow running gag comes to mind), and it plays a more crucial role than ever in “Story,” though the film could hardly be classified as a straightforward comedy. Ned Vizzini’s semiautobiographical novel provided the film with its source material. Sometimes what reads like a unique, personal portrait on paper ends up looking like a standard coming-of-age crowd-pleaser on film. The large ensemble of patients that Craig encounters are such broad caricatures that they could’ve been played by Muppets (there’s even a gentleman in full Hasidic garb who bears a striking resemblance to Sam the Eagle). Several “Family Guy”-style cutaway gags attempt to enter Craig’s psyche through his heightened fantasies, which often come off as forced or contrived. There’s one particular sequence, in the form of an extended musical number, that makes the boat trip in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” look subdued in comparison. And the film’s rather shallow, overarching message could be succinctly summarized in one word, preferably bellowed by Auntie Mame: “LIVE!”

Yet for all the film’s shortcomings, it still manages to have an irresistible appeal. This filmmaking team has always had a knack for garnering authentic, unaffected performances from its actors, and “Story” is no exception. Gilchrist shares a lovely chemistry with his character’s budding love interest, played by the luminous Emma Roberts, who truly has the potential to not only become a big movie star (like her aunt), but a formidable actress as well. Despite their stylistic stumbles, Fleck and Boden do an effective of job of exploring Craig’s life outside of the hospital, through a series of flashbacks and potent phone conversations. The poignance in Craig’s journey toward self-discovery is palpable, primarily because Gilchrist nails his character’s vulnerability, maturity and utterly natural charisma. He makes this somewhat unremarkable “Story” more than kind of special.

‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’ stars Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz, Thomas Mann, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan. It was written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. It opened on Oct. 8 at local theaters. It is rated PG-13.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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