So Cool to be Crazy in It's Kind of a Funny Story
A film seemingly designed to get every New York City honors student face-punched at college, Its Kind of a Funny Story chronicles a privileged Brooklyn high-schoolers super-cool institutionalized mental-health break. Hot for his best friends girlfriend, stressed out over an application to a prestigious summer school, and audaciously neglectful of his Zoloft, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) commits himself to a psych ward after tepid fantasies of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge start warming.
Twenty years after Heathers had its anarchic way with tin-eared adult solutions to teen problems, the specter of suicide still haunts student life (and attendant news-cycle opportunism), with the recent Tyler Clementi tragedy serving as a sad reminder. But while Heathers dove into truly dark corners of the adolescent psyche, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck work overtime to keep cuddly Craig safe from self-harm.
Despite his privileged race, class, and access to superlative specialized public education, Craig is posited as a universalized figure, stressed out in a banal We all hate homework tenor, with suicidal tendencies hazy to the point of insincere. Were never granted real-time access to his school life, never shown incidents that might have set him off. Like most people, he gives the idea of suicide some thought, but thats about it. Through voiceover, he describes the grim predicaments that send some people over the edge, before assuring that my problems are less dramatic than that. For Craig, suicide is hyperbole. I just need you to help me, he pleads to the E.R. physician, blinking big coal eyes like a baby Keanu. And away we go.
With this Young Adult riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Boden and Fleck at first glance seem far afield from the sociorealism of their previous features, Half Nelson and Sugar. Much as there was to admire about those filmsparticularly Andrij Parekhs searching cinematography and several strong, naturalistic performancesthere was also a nagging self-seriousness, laundry-list liberalism (on race, class, drugs, immigration, etc.), an anthropological (and thus dimly exploitative) distance from characters, and a willingness to cede story to good intentions. Rather than a humorous departure from such proclivities, Its Kind of a Funny Story doubles down, uniting broad comedy with leaden sloganeering for a super-sincere, tonally awry amusement tour of post-9/11 despair.
Besides Craig, who at one point attributes his depression to war, the failing economy, and environmental uncertainty, we meet an eclectic community of colorful New York characters mentally challenged by modern living: a woman gone paranoid because of the Patriot Act; an acid-fried Hasid with sensitive hearing; a Tourettic schizophrenic whose random shout-outs play as punchline prophesy; a bed-bound Egyptian who offers cryptic, Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom; and our heros in-house father figure, Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, taking his first step toward Robin Williamspaved, sad-clown legitimacy), whos caught in a cycle of unemployment, poverty, and rage. What I would do to be you for a day, he tells Craig, but instead of a note of resentment or even a soft critique of entitlement, its meant as affirmation. It really is great to be Craig, whose election to the nuthouse does wonders for his ego and reputation. In five short days, he learns that hes a master illustrator, a natural singer (his performance of Under Pressure devolves into a risible lip-synched fantasy sequence featuring all the crazies decked out in glam wear), and drawn to traveling, volunteering, and saving the world.
When classmates learn why Craigs not in school, he becomes a small sensation in absentia, recalling Ferris Buellers Day Offs wave of Save Ferris hysteria. But rather than mock, the movie grants him his newfound notorietymuch like it lets his rocker cutter crush, Noelle (Emma Roberts), sport peacock-chic cheek scars like Adam Ant Apache streaks. As the young lovers scamper down hospital halls and embrace on the roof with the skylineand Broken Social Scenes brightly reassuring scoreas accompaniment, its clear their joy doesnt just come from realizing that life is precious, but also that they lead precious lives. I used to think art was just bourgeois decadence, a wiser Craig says in the end, which is funny, because thats kind of what this film is.
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