It’s simpleminded and insulting, and it’s a quick way to lose sight of the range that Zach Galifianakis shows off to breathtaking effect in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. He’s been bumping around in movies and TV playing bit parts for more than a decade, but he’s probably burned into most moviegoers’ minds as the vacant-brained Alan from The Hangover. And if you’re going to It’s Kind of a Funny Story expecting wacky comedy, it’d be nice if you were amazed rather than disappointed.
He’s working with a pair of pretty talented filmmakers in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), adapting the semi-autobiographical novel by Ned Vizzini. The author’s counterpart is Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist), a high-achieving 16-year-old New Yorker whose anxieties have led him to contemplate suicide. He checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, unaware that he’s in for a mandatory five-day stay. So he begins forming tentative connections with the other residents, including a brash teen girl with self-inflicted scars named Noelle (Emma Roberts), and Bobby (Galifianakis), whose seemingly relative sanity hides some serious issues.
When a story is dealing with mentally ill characters, there’s an extraordinarily high risk of degenerating into platitudes and holy-fool stereotypes. Fleck and Boden almost lose course the moment Craig first sets foot in the hospital; “Fill this out,” mutters a nurse while handing Craig a clipboard after he tells her he’s thinking of killing himself, and cue the rim-shot. They recover pretty quickly, but with a bunch of conspicuously quirky supporting characters filling the halls of “3 North”—Craig’s agoraphobic Egyptian roommate (Bernard White) and a Hassidic Jew who complains about every noise (Daniel London)—It’s Kind of a Funny Story feels ever on the verge of turning into kind of an exploitative story.
Yet it never quite does, and that’s largely a function of how the film handles its three central characters. Like Vizzini’s book, the film recognizes that Craig’s problems are nowhere near as profound as those of his fellow patients, yet still takes him seriously as a troubled kid looking for some balance in his life. Gilchrist’s performance is relaxed and unaffected, and he has an easy rapport with Roberts, despite the near impossibility of avoiding a sense of contrivance from this adult psychiatric ward also just happening to have a resident Craig’s age.
But nearly everything that feels awkward or forced about It’s Kind of a Funny Story disappears into the background whenever Galifianakis’ Bobby is at the center of a scene. He does get several purely comic moments, including Bobby’s effort to help Craig role-play flirting with Noelle while playing her part. He really shines, though, when burrowing into the genuine emotional pain behind Bobby’s anti-authoritarian antics. If you’ve never taken a moment to watch closely what an actor does when he’s not necessarily speaking his dialogue, take that moment here. Watch what Galifianakis does with his eyes, or with a shrug, or with a raised eyebrow. Playing a character that could easily exist simply to make Craig realize what real depression looks like, Galifianakis instead inhabits Bobby completely.
Do Fleck and Boden get a little over-aggressive with their attempts at giving the film visual zip, like diving into animations of Craig’s dense “brain map” artwork or staging a glam karaoke music video to “Under Pressure?” Sure. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is as uneven a dramatic narrative in cinematic form as it was in literary form. But there’s something particularly thrilling about being there for an artist’s coming-out party, and that’s what this feels like for Zach Galifianakis. Some day, when everyone’s talking about him as one of the most versatile talents in movies, you can say you were there at the beginning.
IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY
Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts, Zach Galifianakis