The art of producing a comedy-drama is a delicate one. Tell too many jokes and you run the risk of your message getting lost. Go too serious and the audience may feel bogged down in the story or worse, ripped off by your lack of gag material. There’s a fine line filmmakers have to walk in order to achieve success in this hybrid genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make a winner. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” opening October 8th in Toronto and October 15th nationwide, walks the razor thin tightrope with the unshakable balance of past genre stars. It may be a little early to call it a sealed deal, but the film based on Ned Vizzini’s popular novel of the same name is most definitely in the running to become this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Juno equivalent.
The film tells the story of sixteen-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), an imaginative overachiever who’s struggling under the pressures from his family and academic career. After experiencing a particularly vivid suicidal fantasy, Craig decides to check himself into a mental health clinic. Shortly after he’s admitted, Craig finds out that due to ongoing hospital renovations the youth ward has been temporarily closed – meaning that he’ll be spending his 5-day stay intermingling with both teen and adult patients. The situation is daunting for Craig until he meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), a 36-year-old fellow patient who decides to mentor Craig through his stay. Craig also bonds with Noelle (Emma Roberts), a suicidal teen with an affinity for Radiohead and line drawings. With the help of Noelle, Bobby, and the rest of the ward, Craig reprioritizes his life and discovers that beauty and happiness can be found in the most unexpected of places as long as you’re brave enough to go looking for it.
The terms “suicidal” and “mental health” tend to send up red flags for people. The topics are touchy at best, and if not approached in precisely the right way they can make a film come across as downright offensive. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck tackle the subject matter flawlessly, creating a film that allows the setting and circumstances step aside to make room for the stunning characters their actors and writers have created. It’s explained why each patient has checked into the hospital but their illnesses don’t take centre stage, a technique that allows almost everyone on screen to portray wonderfully multi-dimensional individuals that refuse to be defined by “what’s wrong with them.” Zach Galifianakis in particular delivers an absolutely incredible performance that totally blew me away.
Galifianakis obviously brought a dash of humour to his role (if you’re a fan of his comedy work, keep an ear open for his almost-mandatory Werther’s reference), but he also brought an incredibly grounded sense of humanity that made him a total show-stealer. Comedy fans will also love Jim Gaffigan’s brief-but-crucial appearance as Craig’s workaholic father, a role that proves Gaffigan’s got some versatility too.
Be warned, though: there’s an indulgent lipdub number to the tune of Queen/Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” If you’re not prepared for all the glitter in Vegas to be represented on one screen at one time, you may want to head out to the snack bar for that particular five minutes of the flick. But despite being over-the-top, the number isn’t jarring in the slightest. The scene feels fitting and fun within the confines of the movie – no “WTF why” moments here, just straight thumbs-up.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is exactly that – kind of a funny story that ends up becoming kind of the perfect movie. As a huge fan of both the book and anything Zach Galifianakis has ever touched, I left the theatre feeling exponentially happier and totally fulfilled. Don’t miss this one – you’re going to want the “I saw it first” bragging rights when the time comes.