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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Light tone, dark topic
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Thursday, October 21,2010

Light tone, dark topic

By Michael Phillips
Some films are at once disappointing and successful, worth seeing despite the limitations of their source material.

 

How so? Let It’s Kind of a Funny Story explain it all for you.

This is the third feature from the writing-directing team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Their first film, Half Nelson, gave Ryan Gosling his most interesting role to date as a heroin-addicted high school teacher. Their second, an even richer character study called Sugar, followed a Dominican baseball player as he travels to America to make his bid for the majors, encountering Arizona diner menus and Iowa cornfields and (ensuring an excellent film’s box office failure) a career path quite unlike his initial great expectations.

With It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Fleck and Boden’s first film based on a novel, it’s a different story, capped — rightly or wrongly — by an extremely happy ending the filmmakers do their best to earn. They’ve adapted Ned Vizzini’s young-adult bestseller about a teenage boy’s five days spent in a Brooklyn psychiatric hospital. The point of view belongs to Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a 16-year-old under persistent pressure from his parents ( Jim Gaffigan and Lauren Graham) to produce a crackerjack entrance essay for a schmantzy summer school program. Depressed and off his Zoloft, Craig considers suicide but calls a hot line instead.

Checking himself into the facility (Viola Davis plays his supervising doctor), he finds an adoptiveuncle figure in Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who has been there awhile. Craig also finds romance thanks to fellow patient Noelle (Emma Roberts), survivor of a cutting incident, and a better match for Craig’s personality than the boy’s long-pined-for high school classmate, Nia (Zoe Kravitz).

Fleck and Boden acknowledge The Breakfast Club as an influence here, and you can see what they’re going for with their blend of pathos and humor. In key ways, though, their sensibility isn’t anything like John Hughes’. For one thing, their commercial instincts are far less ruthlessly driven by “types” of kids and adults. And that’s good. Fleck and Boden have a knack for lending a documentary, daily-life quality to their exchanges. As a result, an actor as potentially shticky as Galifianakis comes off movingly in a role you don’t necessarily buy. Gilchrist keeps things very low-key, even monotonously so, but he’s honest. He’s a prime reactor, and doesn’t force a single beat.

The result is both a success and a disappointment.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, divided into neat little daylong chapters in Craig’s stay, lacks the staying power and bittersweet layering of Half Nelson and Sugar. Yet it holds together. And when the dialogue includes phrases as apt and sharp as “flirt-punched” you think, well, that’s effective by almost any standard.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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