Writing/directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, responsible for “Half Nelson” (depressed teacher learns from students) and “Sugar” (sports underdog makes good), are no strangers to uplifting melodrama.
In an interview with the A.V. Club about “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” the partners said they, “tried to embrace every cliché of a teen movie we could think of.” That’s no joke.
While the trailer looks like a “Cuckoo’s Nest” clone, the film replaces raging individualism and rebellion against an unqualified authority with raging libidos and rebellion against overbearing parents. The result is a cute and insubstantial story that is more John Hughes that Ken Kesey. This breakfast club just happens to be locked in an adult psychiatric ward.
The protagonist, Craig (Keir Gilchrist), is about as exciting as his name. He goes to a high-stakes high school in New York City, where the relative brilliance and sexuality of his peers leaves him a self-loathing wreck. Mom and Dad don’t understand; instead, they just push Craig to apply to a prestigious summer program that he doesn’t care about, but feels will solely determine his future happiness.
So he climbs the Brooklyn Bridge.
Craig doesn’t jump, but instead checks himself into a hospital psych ward, home to a cast of kooky patients and one flirty teen named Noelle (Emma Roberts – not Emma Watson, but about as cute). The relative weirdness of his new peers, and the attention from Noelle, eventually rehabilitates Craig after a few days in the hole. We should all be so lucky.
As promised by the directors, Craig’s short journey pauses at all the great teen movie clichés. He makes friends with a wizened loon (the surprisingly dynamic Zach Galifianakis) who becomes a teacher and confidante, despite violent mood swings. He breaks out of his cage and runs through hallways with his lady over songs by Broken Social Scene. He explains his past through Wes Anderson-style montages, some with stop-motion cityscapes. At one point, he impersonates David Bowie in an endearing musical fantasy.
But what gets lost in all the peppy teen homages is a reason to care. Craig’s problems are broad enough that any young student can sympathize, but his circumstances are too extreme and his changes too immediate to connect with. Many of us have thrown pity-parties over college applications and the pressure of future planning. Few of us have straddled the rails of the Brooklyn Bridge, ended up in psych ward and left feeling right as rain in five days. Craig’s easy victory emphasizes our own daily defeats. It’s a valid date movie.
If there’s one message to take away from this movie, it is this: Cute girls heal all wounds. Or maybe: Your life isn’t as bad as you think, you whiny turd. Maybe there isn’t one message. As in life, you need to find the meaning for yourself. Just don’t expect Zach Galifianakis to help you.