It's Kind of a Funny Story initially appears to be a teen version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a 16-year-old from an ostensibly stable, middle-class New York family, has been having suicidal dreams, and when his latest feels more real and persuasive than usual, he bikes to the emergency room. The attending physician wants to send him home to his parents, but Craig convinces him that he needs immediate help.
Craig gets a little more than he had in mind. With the adolescent wing of the hospital under construction, he gets admitted to the adult psych ward. When he tells a doctor the next morning that he's feeling better and is ready to go home, Craig learns that admission requires a minimum five-day stay.
Though Craig's depression is serious, his problems don't appear to be as severe as the more crippling mental illnesses he witnesses. But it's to the credit of filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck that they avoid the easy Cuckoo's Nest scenario: The doctors and nurses are not villainized (instead, the chief psychiatrist, played by Viola Davis, is portrayed as compassionate but grounded). Medication is not an evil to be rebelliously avoided. Craig's attempts to impact the lives of his fellow patients are not foiled. And however reluctant he is, Craig's time spent on the ward is not imprisonment but treatment.
Boden and Fleck previously collaborated on the unflashy, realistic indie dramas Half Nelson (with Ryan Gosling as a high school teacher with a drug problem) and Sugar (about a teenage Dominican baseball player negotiating the American minor leagues). It's Kind of a Funny Story is their attempt to branch out, not only with a more high-profile cast (including comedian of the moment Zach Galifianakis, television star Lauren Graham, and Emma "niece of Julia" Roberts) but with bursts of wild, broad humor and, more pointedly, a series of fantasy, dream, or daydream sequences breaking up their hospital-bound narrative.
This mixture of tones and visual styles is uneasy. The fantasy/dream flourishes often fall flat — particularly an unfortunate bit that reimagines the patients as a glam-rock band. Galifianakis and Roberts are best when staying closer to the their indie-realism roots, as with a fuzzy memory of cross-borough bike riding.
It's Kind of a Funny Story is generally at its best when it isn't (funny, that is), falling into the ostensibly mundane rhythms that marked the pair's previous films. There's the beginning of a really interesting romance here between Craig and mysterious fellow patient Noelle (Roberts), two teens who feel more real and engaging than most we ever see onscreen. But the film keeps Roberts (given underperforming material in Nancy Drew, the lone recognizable human in the otherwise dreadful Valentine's Day) on the sidelines too often. (And Graham is utterly wasted in a role that should have gone to a less recognizable actress.)
Boden and Fleck have created characters — Craig, Noelle, Galifianakis' damaged but self-aware Bobby — rich enough that you want to follow them past the end credits. But they didn't give them quite a good enough movie to inhabit.
Opening Friday, October 8th