The evolution of Zach Galifianakis’ from awkward, offbeat, underground funnyman to awkward, offbeat, mainstream comedy superstar is surely one of the least likely in Hollywood history. That a comedian has the scruples to avoid changing their comic sensibilities to cater to the masses is impressive enough; that he can forge a wildly successful career based upon it is damn near impossible. His appearances in The Hangover and Due Date have been entertaining enough – and he even showed off some dramatic chops in a couple of choice moments in the latter film – but he hadn’t quite reached the hilarious heights of his stand-up act, or his incredibly uncomfortable web-show Between Two Ferns. In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, he gives his best, most surprising performance yet, as a sweet, suicidal patient at a mental hospital eager to get better and reconnect with his daughter. He successfully meshes his dark sense of humour with his unassuming, almost childlike sensibilities.
Writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden adapt Ned Vizzini’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The duo previously made Half Nelson, in which a young teenager bonded with a highly disturbed, but ultimately good-hearted elder. In that film, it was an inner-city girl and her crack-addicted high school teacher. Here, it’s a depressed teen named Craig (Keir Gilchrist) and his fellow hospital patient Bobby (Galifianakis). Craig – pressured by his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) to succeed at school, and enamoured with his best friend’s girlfriend Nia (Zoe Kravitz) – toys with the idea of “ending it all”, but has the foresight to call a help line before doing the deed. He implores his physician to admit him for a short stay at a mental health facility. The doctor complies, but when Craig meets the people he’ll be sharing the next week with – including an agoraphobic Egyptian man named Muqtada (Bernard White), self-harming sweetheart Noelle (Emma Roberts) and the homeless Bobby – he realises his problems might not be that bad after all.
Fleck and Boden’s Half Nelson was uncompromising and real. In contrast, It’s Kind of a Funny Story seems a bit too cute. It’s as if they prepared for the film by exclusively watching the films of Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson (but even those writer/directors are unafraid of going to dark places).The film applies a number of Crowe and Anderson’s ultra-hip (and I mean hip in the derogatory sense) visual traits, including a misguided musical sequence. Their treatment of mental health issues – specifically self-harming and suicide – also feels somewhat glib, as if they were trying to avoid any really depressing stuff. But surely the film’s characters – and the people of the world who identify with them – deserve less bashful treatment than this. As it stands, the film is neither funny enough to warrant the dismissal of mental health issues, nor serious enough to explain the lack of laughs.
That being said, the film is worth watching at least for the tremendous ensemble. Gilchrist, emerging as one of best up-and-coming young actors with this and his work on United States of Tara, successfully carries the film, and makes his potentially over-entitled protagonist likable. Roberts is even more lovable in her all-to-brief performance, while Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies are calming presences as hospital workers. But best of all is Galifianakis. He’s able to turn on a dime; balancing his disarming humour with moments of anguished outbreaks. His is one of the best supporting performances of recent memory; equally funny and heartbreaking. If only I could say the same of the movie.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story arrives on DVD and Blu-ray August 17, 2011.