It's Kind of a Funny Story is not a funny movie. Nor is it a sincere, compelling, or interesting one. That a pair of indie-favorite filmmakers would attempt a teenager's version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a big shock; that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, co-directors of the very fine films Half Nelson and Sugar, would turn in such a mawkish, cloying, and uncomfortable film absolutely is.
Funny Story is about a personality-bereft 16-year-old, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who is suffering from daddy pressures, and so he checks himself in to a nearby clinic. As expected, the facility is overflowing with lunatics both sweet and allegedly endearing, and it's here that our central character discovers all sorts of valuable life lessons. Actually what he absorbs are cliches, stereotypes, facile platitudes, and Hallmark card-deep sentiments about how to live your life happy and stress-free. If I told you there was a lovable lug in the ward (played by Zack Galafinakis) and a wounded young hottie (Emma Roberts), would that fill in the rest of the plot synopsis for you? Don't even get me started on the college entrance exam our poor little whiner is forever worried about ... he's only doing it because DAD wants it, y'know.
Beyond the thoroughly unlikable lead character, a screenplay that sounds like a slightly vulgar after-school special, and the methodical way that Boden and Fleck run through their checklist of familiar "looney bin" tropes -- the film manages to become outrageously bad in a few sequences. The directors have decided that the best way to describe Craig's psychological malaise is through a series of "daydream" sequences, and each one is more painful than the last. It's Kind of a Funny Story wants to be a dramatic comedy, but at its worst moments its quite outrageously funny.
Not even the always affable Galafinikas can break the tedium. Here the actor gets to do a bit of his trademark weirdness, but here he also gets to play a fractured mentor who's both sweet and tragic. Or at least he would be if his character weren't painted in only the broadest of brush strokes. The film is based on a well-regarded novel by Ned Vizzini, but little if any literacy manages to permeate this adaptation. (The kid rarely speaks like a teenager would, and the film is saddled with a non-stop narration that grates early and often.) Structurally, things are a mess, no matter how many goofball daydreams the directors toss at the screen. A Queen homage is literally painful to watch; early script conflicts are hurriedly rectified with off-hand dialogue; characters simply vanish for long stretches; and the ill-fitting ending absolutely screams of bad editing and cold feet.
Other than that, the movie's a real winner.
I'm certain that these filmmakers will bounce back with another damn fine film. Several, probably. This one, however, is best left for the festival circuit -- which is where we suffer through the indie-style artifice so you don't have to.