It's Kind of a Funny Story reunites the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar), though this go-around they are telling a story (working from a beloved novel by Ned Vizzini) that feels, frankly, beneath them. Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a mopey, suicidal 16-year-old with an overtaxed, stressed-out life. A resident of the socially striving borough of Manhattan, Craig is enrolled in a hyper-competitive high school full of precocious over-achievers with a one-way ticket to the Ivies. His humorless father is grooming him for some imagined career in politics. Finally, the pressure is too much: Craig shows up at the hospital emergency room begging to be admitted to the psych ward, where he encounters a sitcom version of the mentally ill. Think of it as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the Facebook crowd.
The movies have never seen a more lovable cast of loonies. Every misfit has the sweet, cuddly eccentricity of one of the Adventure Time cartoon critters. There's the chubby Hispanic playa in a velour track suit and his strange-looking, spacey sidekick, a wild-eyed Hasid who overdosed on acid and now has an aversion to loud noises; a left-wing Columbia professor who went batty post-Patriot Act; and Craig's Egyptian roommate, who refuses to leave his bed until someone plays some Egyptian music (I kid you not). There's even the pretty self-cutter Noelle (Emma Roberts), identified by three slashes on her cheek like the imprint of an angry kitty. But Noelle, who soon catches Craig's eye, seems no more depressed than your average teen at the mall who's been told Sephora is out of glitter nail polish. The cuddliest nutter of them all, however, is Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, channeling James Belushi), a bear of a man who — despite a wife and child on the outside — can't seem to pull it together long enough to make it in the free world.
They're all as cutely docile and helpless as kittens tangled up in yarn. If they ever hit the streets of New York City, the real crazies would eat them for dinner. The master of ceremonies to all this fey and adorable mental illness is Smitty (an utterly wasted Jeremy Davies), a Tom Waits hipster in a pork pie hat who bangs the metaphorical bongo drum each time something profound or interesting is said. In fact, It's Kind of a Funny Story may have the opposite of its intended effect and send disaffected teens clamoring to get into psych wards: It all looks so cozy and flirty and fun, like summer camp, but more hygienic. Occasionally Craig and Bobby or Craig and Noelle sneak away (this is the most under-supervised nut house on record) to play basketball or run through the hospital in purloined scrubs. Like kids at daycare, they have craft time and music therapy time, play ping pong, and pine for a real pizza party of their own. Even some back story research or a single afternoon spent at Bellevue would have made it morally impossible for Boden and Fleck to cutesify mental illness the way they have here.
It's Kind of a Funny Story comes from a calculated music video-inspired place founded on shallow material and great soundtracks where precious, vapid movies like 500 Days of Summer dwell. It will strike some as a pity party for the angsty privileged class. In truth, it's probably the kind of material better handled in a three-minute emo song than an entire film where its navel-gazing sensitivity is inflated to ridiculously enormous proportions.
The saddest thing about this film is how it cheapens and commodifies genuine teen misery. The American cinema, from Rebel Without a Cause to The Graduate, has a noble tradition of conveying, with sensitivity and dignity, difficulties in the transition from childhood to adulthood. And kids today have every reason to be depressed. But this is not the movie for them: It's Kind of a Funny Story is like handing America's troubled kids a lollipop when what they really need is a Xanax or a more hopeful future.
It's Kind of a Funny Story is a teaching moment for Craig. Sure he's stressed, but he's also one lucky fella, with devoted parents and oodles of talent. The overarching message of the film: cheer up!