The obvious touchstone for It's Kind of a Funny Story is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman's classic film based on Ken Kesey's breakthrough novel.
Yet beyond its setting -- a hospital mental ward -- this film by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden doesn't really deal with the same material. Cuckoo's Nest was a parable about power and its abuse. Funny Story, on the other hand, is about the way that modern society pressures teens to get ready for the rat race -- and how healthy it can be to step back, unplug and get some perspective.
Taken from a book by Ned Vizzini, Funny Story is about Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who stands on the Brooklyn Bridge, contemplating killing himself. He's a high-school student, overwhelmed by all the choices and prospects for the future -- but he's not really serious about suicide.
Still, it feels serious to him, or maybe he just feels he needs to put everything on hold. So he walks into a hospital and asks to be locked up for his own safety. He almost immediately regrets his decision, when, having finished the paperwork, the hospital personnel casually inform him that the teen ward is closed for repairs and Craig will be living with the adult population.
"Really, I feel much better," he says, trying to talk his way out -- too late. He's there for at least a week of observation.
What's that old George W. Bush saying -- a mind is a terrible thing to lose? But as stressed as he is by his parents -- and his own -- expectations about his future, Craig comes to realize that, in fact, he's a piker compared to his fellow patients.
The sanest among them seems to be Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a perpetual depressive who understands Craig almost immediately. He serves as Craig's guide back to his own sense of normalcy.
Craig's problems have to do with getting into a prestigious pre-college course that will lead to getting into the college of his choice. He's also jealous of his best friend, who is going out with the girl Craig covets and who seems to effortlessly achieve all the things Craig only dreams of. But Craig finds his groove with a female patient, Noelle (Emma Roberts), who is a cutter with self-worth issues.
Gilchrist has an appealing diffidence as the high-strung kid, and Roberts is also good as a tough, vulnerable young woman. But the real treat is the chemistry between Gilchrist and Galifianakis, with Galifianakis doing particularly nice, understated work. Galifianakis can be funny -- hey, it's what he does -- but, more important, he can move you with the dramatic moments. Here he is, finally, a comedian playing a three-dimensional character at the center of a film and walking away with it.
But, ultimately, It's Kind of a Funny Story is disappointingly insubstantial. Despite nice stylistic flourishes by Fleck and Boden, showing Craig in the middle of fantasy moments, this is a low-key movie about coping with depression and anxiety.
A week in a mental hospital isn't much -- and yet it seems to be too much for the writers. They mean well, but ultimately wind up creating a superficial story with mental illness as the hook. Worse, the title amounts to false advertising: It's not really that funny.