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Malaise lite 

'Funny Story' a teen tale.

click to enlarge 'IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY': Emma Roberts and Keir Gilchrist star.
  • 'IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY': Emma Roberts and Keir Gilchrist star.

At the beginning of "It's Kind of a Funny Story," 16-year old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) contemplates throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. But he's a sensible boy, so instead he rides his bike to the hospital and admits to the nurse at the front desk that he's depressed and wants to kill himself. Because the juvenile ward is under renovation, he ends up in the hospital's adult psychiatric ward with a mandatory stay of five days.

The general lunacy of the hospital's other patients immediately convinces Craig that he's not mentally unstable and doesn't need five days of pep talks and pills, but by then it's too late. Fortunately, he meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who becomes something of a screwball mentor, although Bobby mysteriously avoids giving his reasons for being in the hospital. To make life in the loony bin even better, Craig also meets Noelle (Emma Roberts), another teen afflicted by similar pubescent malaise. Suddenly, the psych ward isn't such bad a place to be cooped up in: Craig accepts word of wisdom from Bobby, develops a reciprocated crush on Noelle, decides that life is worth living after all, and conveniently wraps up several years' worth of self-actualization.

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" will probably go over well with 16-year-olds and anyone who enjoys cute romcoms with indie music soundtracks. Fair enough. It's uplifting and it isn't boring, which satisfies a moviegoer's fundamental needs. It's even kind of funny, as per the title, although the humor is more or less unrefined; if it were a text message, it would be an "lol."

But there's no nuance. Craig, for being the depressed protagonist, is far too one-dimensional. He is under heavy academic pressure from his father and has romantic feelings for his best friend's girlfriend. And ... that's it. That's why he wants to kill himself. Yes, teen-agers think in extremes, and it's not unbelievable that problems like this would drive one to suicide. But beyond these universal hurdles of adolescence, Craig is anonymous. Maybe he really is depressed, but the audience would never know it because it's never privy to that side of his personality. We don't need a Werther, but a little bit more Holden Caulfield wouldn't hurt.

That said, the movie has almost nothing to do with suicide. In fact, there's really only a single crucial question left as the credits begin to roll: Why a psychiatric ward?

The easy answer is that it's based on a partly autobiographical novel by a guy named Ned Vizzini. Of course, the backdrop of a book is no great obstacle to Hollywood. Psychiatric wards are powerful settings with enormous capacity for emotional steamrolling, and not without reason. They are a perfect metaphor for the containment of the human mind, as well as body, and they're good at bringing up the occasionally unsanitary truths that lie within. It would be wildly unfair to compare "It's Kind of a Funny Story" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," an artistic triumph of the countercultural movement. But McMurphy could only exist behind institutional walls; Craig, on the other hand, would come of age just as well at a summer camp. The point of a psych ward is to internalize the drama, but there's nothing in this movie that's internalized — it's a romantic teen comedy.

Another reviewer might argue that this is missing the point. But the other patients in the hospital, all of whom are afflicted with mental diseases far more distressing than young adulthood, are treated as comic relief. "It's Kind Of A Funny Story" markets itself as a "comedy-drama," but the interaction between these two elements is wobbly. Surprisingly, Galifianakis is the only character with any dramatic edge: He is a suicidal father who wants to be reunited with his daughter, who's worried about where he'll live when he leaves the hospital. He helps Craig realize that there's a lot to look forward to in life, and that he should live meaningfully. But that's a bit too Holden for Craig. He'd probably have been better of just saying, "It's puberty, dude. Get over it."

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