Lost in the slog of fright flicks, and masochist movies in 3D, comes an Oscar-worthy little gem that delivers Zach Galifianakis into the pantheon of movie stars, and serves up the first great psych ward story since "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is old-school movie making. That is to say, it is has a plot, and character development, and it relies on a slew of well-crafted little performances painted on the screen by directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, from their script with Keir Gilchrist, all of whom should be dusting off tuxedos or considering their Oscar gown. After Matt Stone & Trey Parker's Oscar appearance in the gowns, I'll leave it up to them to sort out who wears what.
Craig Gilner, played nearly-flawlessly by Keir Gilchrist, is a kid living in the modern pressure-cooker. He's at the most over-the-top over-achievers magnet school in New York City, his dad is looking for him to break out of the pack into college at 35 furlongs like Secretariat, and the girl that he has been totally hooked on has hooked up with his best friend, not him.
He has recurring dreams about riding his bike up to the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night and jumping off, so he goes to the emergency room and begs to get himself checked in for psychiatric evaluation. He meets Bobby (Galifianakis), a bushy bearded red-haired doctor in the ER waiting room, and within a few sentences the two have a clear connection that seems like it will materialize over the next few scenes.
A few minutes into his check-in tour he runs into Bobby and finds out that he's a patient on the psych floor, not a doc. Bobby lays out the floor for Craig, and us on the tour. After he's done, Craig is ready to go, but Dr. Minerva, the staff psychiatrist, tells him that he has to stay for five days and, before he can object, his family descends on him and his mom Lynn (Lauren Graham) and dad (Jim Gaffigan), with sister in tow, convince him to stick out observation.
Over the next five days, Craig embarks on a journey of self-discovery that most teens do over years, set in a backdrop of lost souls and the socially terrified who have landed in this hospital haven. He befriends Bobby, and falls for Noelle (Emma Roberts), who draws him out of his neurotic shell.
The setting of a mental health facility usually takes on brooding dark overtones, as in the recent "Shutter Island," or functions as a way of showcasing society's shortcomings, as it did in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It is the latter movie that has made it very hard to set a comedy or personal drama into the mental health world for a couple of decades. Fortunately, "It's Kind of A Funny Story" breaks through that wall in a thoughtful, entertaining, and funny kind of a way.
What sets this dramedy apart, and makes it a foundation for some really outstanding performances by an exceptional cast of second bananas and newcomers who make the most of their day in the Hollywood sun, is that nothing is played for stereotypes, either in the script or in the direction.
Craig narrates parts of the film and makes it very clear that his parents aren't responsible for his depression, nor are any of his friends. It keeps the whys and wherefores very simple without over-simplifying anything.
It is a character-driven drama, too, one of the rare, well done ones, with characters painted with the detail and grace of the painter Seurat, a sort of "Five Days in the Ward with Craig." Dr. Minerva is a good therapist, and a great listener. Bobby and his friends aren't dangerous, or disturbingly weird, just a little lost by society's standards, but not necessarily by their own.
In fact, there is a whole inner world of the psych floor that is oddly sane for all of the insanity it is supposed to house. It is the outside world that's crazy, and this is Shangri-La compared to the outside world. Bobby is scheduled to leave the hospital about the same time that Craig is, but for him the brass ring is making it to a group home where he can function.
Bobby is Craig's mentor, confessor, friend, and patient in various turns. Galifianakis' piercing eyes, from the mass of hair that engulfs his head in Ewok-like splendor, read life like a laser, and ache at his sadness, or surrender to its immensity. This is one of those landmark performances that say that an actor has "arrived" in that group to be taken seriously, even when they're being funny.
Which is to put nothing less on Gilner, who, as the protagonist of this tale, has to carry the weight of the picture, which he does amazingly well. At his age, the ability to paint such a complex portrayal of human frailty and teenage angst speaks to a long and healthy career as well.
The other players get their moments in the sun, and all are engaging and do their bit to push the plot forward. One though that comes to the fore is Bernard White, who plays Muqtada, Craig's roommate so life terrified that he doesn't get out of bed. A pivotal moment of the film reveals him, and, for a six-minute roll, he adds that dot of paint to the canvas that makes it near perfect.
The movie has been relegated to the smaller theaters behind the owls and the masochistic morons, but you should find it, and see it. Quality filmmaking that isn't dumped into the art houses only is a rare thing these days, and it is worthy of your patronage, and the Academy's consideration this winter.
My shiny two.