Monday, October 11, 2010

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) – Review

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is like its name – funny, but with more serious (sort of) overtones. The story focuses on a teen who cannot seem to cope with life and has suicidal thoughts – thus he goes into a psychiatric center for a quick solution and ends up being held for five days for observation (the minimum requirement). Writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck use the psych floor of the hospital as sort of a mini universe for this character, Craig – he learns about himself, grows up, makes friends, meets a girl – all the stuff he would be doing anyway, but this setting provides a more concentrated and controlled environment. For example, the teen psych area is being renovated so all the teens are mixed with the adults – yet Craig and Noel (his romantic interest) seem to be the only two teens. There are no real serious issues, no danger, everything is glossed over with sort of a sugarcoating, as if this film is like a PG version of an R rated story (the film is rated PG-13). Sure, suicide and other psychiatric problems are discussed and apparent, but they are sort of shuffled off as merely background and there is never a sense of the gravity of these issues – almost as if it is no big deal and this is a cool place to hang out. The character of Bobby is really the only one to actually have a darker undertone. He is funny and charismatic on the outside, but there is something sad and heartbreaking about him to the point where the audience is not sure whether he will be ok or not. With Craig, there is never any question. The story is far too lighthearted for the viewer to even fear an unhappy ending or even anything but a happy ending. Plus, Craig does not seem like he is even that damaged. He is just a regular kid, facing the same fears as everyone else. The film probably could have benefitted from being more of a drama than a comedy. The story is really a coming-of-age narrative told in a unique way – in a psych ward, with archetypes like father, mother and friends (life-knowledge providers) substituted for patients, counselors and doctors. And despite there being no danger in the story, Boden and Fleck do a great job with the character’s journey. Really, the psychiatric hospital is just the backdrop, it could be anything – it does not influence the story dramatically. Watching Craig come out of his shell and succeed is the most rewarding experience of the film, and like all coming-of-age stories there is a nostalgic aspect to the emotional experiences that resonates with audience members older than their teens, creating a bond through shared (but different) knowledge garnered though growing up. Boden and Fleck seem to also want their film to have sort of an indy quirkiness to it, evidenced by some of the odd and innovative techniques used in the narrative. The music over drawings coming to life is distracting and not really structurally needed given other scenes that better portray Craig realizing what he loves to do and what is important to him. If anything, the scene takes the audience out of the film, which is never a good thing. It is random as the narrative has not set up the world to include animation and it is not a reoccurring element and thus is not necessary and seems to only forward a bid at some sort of cool weirdness. However, they also use still images in areas to tell the story. This technique works quite well with the voiceover narration. Still images sometimes better capture emotion than continuous images, as they focus singularly on an emotion which then allows the audience to linger on that sense emotion having a deeper impact. The use of brief and poignant flashbacks is also well done in the film, while some of the cut scenes revealing what some of the patients did to get themselves into the psych ward is like the animation scene, distracting and unneeded. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is different in its setting, but sort of the same in its storytelling – yet it works, despite some narrative issues, in telling an engaging and enjoyable story (one in which no one seems to get hurt, unlike real life).

Technical achievements: writer-directors Boden and Fleck now have three good feature films. Though, this film feels like their least ambitious. However, they do craft characters and scenarios that make for good entertainment and engage the audience emotionally, and despite the film being soft on the real issues it is still probably their most amusing film to date. They have used the same cinematographer and production designer for all three of their features – here, DP Andrij Parekh uses focus and extreme close-ups to dictate what the viewer should be paying attention to, as the background in many shots is out of focus favoring attention for the main characters of the scene, adding to this, the design work of Beth Mickle works well as her sets are sparse, again directing the focus on the characters. As the film is wholly about the characters, these aesthetic choices work well. Broken Social Scene’s score is adequate, but more than often just feels like a collection of “cool” indy rock songs instead of composition that emotes in connection with what is happening on the screen. The cast is what makes the film good. Jim Gaffigan, Adrian Martinez and Matthew Maher provide some good comedic stuff in limited screen time. Viola Davis is also quite good, despite her small role, serving as the de facto mother figure. Emma Roberts has what seems to be a scaled down role, but makes the most of it, as she lights up her scenes but also harbors some deeper emotional turmoil (which sadly, like a lot of the real emotion in the film, is never addressed). Lead, Keir Gilchrist, is difficult to pin down performance wise. He seems to be too easygoing and lighthearted for someone with suicidal thoughts, and he does not convey deeper emotions well. But, he is quite good as the film shifts to when he is coping and growing. The film, however, belongs to Zach Galifianakis, who is featured in a slightly more than a supporting role. He is brilliant – hysterical and utterly tragic (evoking Bill Murray’s sad clown persona a bit). While the narrative of the film seems a bit too easy, the performances more than make up for it and work well in the narrative resulting in a fun film to watch.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story works as a coming-of-age story, highlighted by strong performances from the main characters, but it is lacking in honest emotional weight. 7/10

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