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It’s Kind of a Funny Story Review

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (or Funny Story for the sake of the review), is a very familiar movie. It is one you have seen before in countless settings, and you will no doubt see it for as long as people are making movies. You might go in expecting something imaginative and wild because of the cast and the setting, but what you will get is an unoriginal, albeit decent, coming of age story.

It’s not really all that funny of a story…

Based on the 2006 book of the same name by Ned Vizzini, Funny Story is a coming-of-age tale about a 16-year old kid in Brooklyn named Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist), who is beginning to crack under mountains of pressure. A student at an exclusive public school for gifted students, Craig is fairly gifted, but feels out of place, and the stress he is under has him considering suicide. Following a troubling dream where he kills himself, Craig heads to a local hospital and convinces the doctor that he needs help. The doctor (played by the Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi) believes him, and much to Craig’s surprise, has him committed to the psychiatric ward for a minimum of five days of observation.

Craig quickly realizes his mistake when he discovers that the youth psychiatric ward is undergoing renovations, and he is forced to stay in the adult ward with people who are seriously disturbed. There he meets Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis, who becomes a friend and pseudo-mentor to Craig.

As Craig’s mandatory five days continue, he yearns for the outside world, his family, and his best-friend’s girlfriend, Nia, (Zoe Kravitz, the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonnet) who he has secretly had a crush on for years. But joining him in the hospital is Noelle, a fellow 16-year old (played by Emma Roberts), and the two quickly form a bond as Craig discovers more about himself, including his natural artistic abilities and his true feelings.

You have seen this story a dozen times before, told in a dozen different ways. You take a kid that is basically one problem away from being a perfectly well-rounded person, put him in the traditional “fish out of water” surroundings, and by the end (almost always with the help of an equally “one piece away from being awesome” girl) the guy is cured of his depression/paranoia/lack of confidence etc., etc.

If I had to describe this movie in one word, it would be inoffensive. Unless you have a connection with the mental health industry, in which case you might be slightly offended by the simplistic look at people with mental health issues who basically just need the right person to come along and cure them. Otherwise it is a somewhat typical story of a kid coming into his own and learning a valuable lesson about himself.

The story is what will kill or endear Funny Story with crowds. If you like this type of movie, then Funny Story is a good addition to the overcrowded genre, if you don’t, there isn’t much here to justify the ticket price — although it is hard to hate a movie like this. You might not like it, you might have seen it before, but it is so tame that it is hard to hate.

The story in It’s Kind of a Funny Story is never really funny in the sense of being a comedy, but neither is it deep enough to be a drama. It skims that line between the two. “Amusing” would be a better word to use than “funny.”

More than a comedian

Directed and written for the screen by Amy Boden and Ryan Fleck, the duo behind the 2008 Sundance darling Sugar, the movie is technically sound. The music choices work well, and the film movies at a crisp pace. While the screenplay may have had some fundamental issues, the movie is well made in terms of the look and feel.

All of the performances in Funny Story are solid, and a slew of familiar actors make appearances, including Jeremy Davis as Smitty– a “cool” member of the hospital staff, and Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig’s parents. But the real star of the movie is Zach Galifianakis.

You might expect Galifianakis to play the role with the same wild, almost manic and disassociated style that he approached his role in The Hangover, especially given that Galifianakis plays a psychiatric patient named Bobby, who refuses to talk about why he is there. If anything, Galifianakis’ performance can best be described as subdued. This role is almost his dramatic audition in much the same way that Little Miss Sunshine was a change for Steve Carell. Following memorable roles as the wild goofball, Galifianakis’ turn as Bobby is an abrupt departure for the comedian, but a good one too. His role, like most of the movie, plays out much like you would expect, but he comes across as likable and interesting and turns in a fine performance. While the comedy roles will probably keep Galifianakis’ attention for years to come, with Funny Story, he proves that he can handle the dramatic roles as well. The movie isn’t likely to propel him to an Oscar, but it could be a stepping stone for bigger and more substantial dramatic roles in the future.

Just a splash of crazy

Emma Roberts and Keir Gilchrist are the driving force of the movie, with Gilchrist as Craig providing the narrative, and Roberts as Noelle providing the redemption in the form of Craig’s love interest. Both actors fulfill their duties adequately, but both are given roles that are perhaps badly suited for them. It is more the fault of the movie than the actors, but each actor plays the role of a severely disturbed young adult, and both come off as likeable people that have no business in a psychiatric ward.

The seemingly good-natured Noelle is seen with self inflicted cuts up and down her arms, and larger scars on her face, signifying some deep and disturbing trauma. This back story is never discussed, nor is it ever even hinted at. Noelle is a fairly happy girl, or at least the film portrays her that way, and it is bizarre for the movie to overlook this key piece of her character. I can only assume that they filmed her back story, but it was either so disturbing or so tragic — probably both — that the film makers were forced to remove it because it interrupted the tone of the movie. Roberts, the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia, has the pedigree, and judging by this role, the talent to be a huge star sooner rather than later, and she does well with what she is given, which isn’t much.

Keir Gilchrist also suffers from the story rather than his portrayal. Craig, is an extremely stressed kid, who wants to die. Or so we are told through the few moments of voice over by Craig, which were unnecessary except that they give important background that is meant to be vital, but is never felt emotionally. Rather than being a disturbed kid that is on the edge, Craig comes across as more of an emo kid, who is kinda mopey. You understand the pressure he is under — in fact, there is even a dream-like sequence to spell this out for the audience when Craig and his friends in the hospital sing the Queen song “Under Pressure” — which is a highlight of the movie. While he is in the hospital, they discuss Craig’s depression, which doesn’t come across as being much more than what many kids his age felt, and is probably less than most. You never get the sense that he is feeling as desperate as someone suicidal would be. Instead, he is just a little sad.  I blame the good-natured vibe of this movie that stands in contrast to the dark back story that we are expected to believe.

Despite my criticisms, Gilchrist and Roberts have a solid chemistry, and both sell the story well. They are likable, and you want to root for them, but their characters just aren’t all that believable when you start to think about them. Gilchrist and Galifianakis also play off each other well, and to that I credit Galifianakis. Not to take away from Gilchrist in any way, but Galifianakis just nailed it and proved that he is a solid actor.

Been there, done that, still worth it

The most surprising thing about Funny Thing is that it is not surprising at all. The film is set in the psyche ward of a New York hospital, a place that by its nature is controlled chaos. The patients are people that have tragic conditions that make them incapable of fully interacting with other members of society, and their lives are anything but predictable. In Funny Story, those same patients are lovable goofballs, with quirky aliments rather than serious ones. In a few cases, it is never really explained why the patient is there, as they seem to be just normal people thrust into the background of the movie to fill in dialogue, or simply as minor plot points.

Craig is under pressure to succeed in fields that he himself is not interested in, and when he is in the hospital, we are meant to feel the journey of self-discovery that he undergoes. While in the psych ward, Craig sees that he really is sick, and he comes to understand the root of that sickness. During this time he discovers that he is a somewhat talented artist, and as he fixes himself, he also begins to fix the people around.

It is an almost magical transformation, and one that is handled with almost a knowing wink from the film makers to the audience. It isn’t a big deal, but it is things like that which make the setting seem positively bewildering. You could remove the psychiatric background and replace it with any other setting where the people are stuck together — say a cruise ship, or a snowed in resort — and it would take an hour or two of rewrites at most. That might be a bit unfair, but only a bit.

The movie continually takes shortcuts. For example, it is mentioned early on that the youth ward is closed for renovation, making sure that Craig is forced into the adults’ ward. It is a necessary point for the story, but the only other young patient in the movie is the lovely Noelle, who just happens to be the same age.  This does not make a difference in any way, but it highlights one of the minor failings of the film, namely the sacrifice of realistic details for the sake of convenience.

If you do go see Funny Story, you probably won’t regret it, but in a couple of weeks, you probably won’t remember it either. All in all, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a sweet and enjoyable movie with a likable cast, but it is nothing you haven’t seen before.

The Good

A likable cast present a feel good movie that is hard to hate. Zach Galifianakis proves he can acts. Gilchrist and Roberts are both on their way to stardom.

The Bad

Nothing you haven’t seen before. The psyche ward setting is underutilized (especially Noelle’s back story), and some might think the mental health aspect is sadly neglected.

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