A suicidal teenager helps heal his fellow mental patients in It's Kind of a Funny Story, an unexpectedly light tale from Half Nelson writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. The movie is essentially a sitcom, but it's a well-crafted one, with welcome outbursts of absurdity to offset the more predictably heartwarming developments.
Like Half Nelson, Funny Story is set in Brooklyn, features a score by Broken Social Scene and explores a mentor-student relationship in which the younger person may be the wiser of the two. But the new movie, unlike its predecessor, sidesteps any truly intractable problems. Its protagonist spends barely a week in a psychiatric ward, and leaves (lighthearted sitcom spoiler alert!) with his problems basically resolved.
Derived from Ned Vizzini's semi-autobiographical novel, which is usually shelved in the young adult section, Funny Story opens on the Brooklyn Bridge. Craig (The United States of Tara's Keir Gilchrist) has bicycled there to (perhaps) end it all, only to be interrupted by apparitions of his parents (Jim Gaffigan and Lauren Graham) and little sister (Dana De Vestern). After they coolly question his plans, Craig decides to pedal to a hospital, where his suicidal intentions are greeted with bureaucratic nonchalance.
Craig signs the commitment papers, only to learn two things that worry him: He'll have to stay at least five days, and he'll be bunking with adults, since the children's ward is under renovation.
"Adult" is an imprecise term, of course. The first patient Craig meets is the ward's class clown, a kid at heart named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis). He likes to borrow doctors' scrubs and tour the rest of the hospital, whose security is amiably lax. Bobby shows Craig how the place works, but within days it'll be Craig who's instructing Bobby.
The new patient's essential problem seems to be the pressure of attending the Executive Pre-Professional High School, one of those ridiculously overspecialized New York City schools that Craig introduces in a brisk tour pitched directly to the camera. He just can't match the accomplishments of his best friend, which include dating Craig's longtime crush, Nia (Zoe Kravitz).
Of course when Nia learns that Craig is in a mental ward, she's very impressed. But now she has competition: Noelle (Emma Roberts), a cutter whose self-inflicted wounds scarcely mar her pretty face. And new romance just might buoy Craig and Noelle more than Zoloft.
Craig meets some patients who are desperately self-absorbed, including his nearly mute Egyptian roommate. But our hero is more outgoing. After quickly decoding his own plight -- with some help from art therapy and the ward's shrink (Viola Davis) -- Craig starts fixing other patients.
Most of these repairs turn out to be simple, and the script's glib solutions may well annoy viewers who have real-life experience of mental illness. Only Bobby is a complicated case, with ambivalent, self-defeating responses that allow Galifianakis to play a multidimensional character for the first time in his bad-doughboy movie career.
The movie isn't primarily an actor's showcase, though. Fleck and Boden take a more intrusive approach than in their previous movies, embellishing the action with self-conscious commentary and playful asides -- including a rendition of an '80s pop hit that's hilariously inappropriate for the music-therapy session where it's performed.
Such scenes may be a little too cute for many. It's Kind of a Funny Story isn't pretending to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Despite some dark undercurrents, the movie emphasizes humor, and its best moments are more than kind of funny. (Recommended)