It's Kind of a Funny Story is the weak but appropriate title for a movie that's kind of good but also kind of not essential viewing for grown-ups. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it's actually kind of not funny at all.
The question here is whether the film can find its audience. It's being released in art houses, but the targeted audience is teenagers—this is basically an earnest after-school special with a laudable theme: Adolescent angst is normal, and it isn't worth killing yourself over.
We meet Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a pleasant, average-looking high school overachiever as he contemplates jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge one night. Instead of jumping, he goes to a nearby hospital and persuades them to admit him into the psychiatric ward. His first lesson becomes painfully clear: His little teenage problems don't amount to a hill of beans next to the agonies of adults with schizophrenia and other severe illnesses.
But he has teen problems all the same, and he proceeds to spend a useful week in the psych ward. He makes two key friends: Noelle, a cute girl prone to cutting herself and the ward's only other teen, and Bobby, an anarchic middle-aged patient who has spent much of his recent life in psychiatric care due to repeated suicide attempts. The former character is played by ingénue-on-the-march Emma Roberts (niece of Julia), who is adequate to the role's requirements. The other is more problematic: He's played by Zach Galifianakis, which leads to expectations the film can't quite navigate. Our first glimpse of him in It's Kind of a Funny Story promises the gonzo antics we've come to expect after films like The Hangover. However, this film isn't about a heroic rebel cut from the cloth of Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy, and accordingly, Galifianakis is kept on a tight leash—as if becalmed by tricyclics. He's fine, but he might have considered shaving his beard so he would resemble a character rather than a guest-starring comedian.
This film represents an intriguing off-speed pitch from the filmmaking team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Their first two features, Half Nelson and Sugar, showed them to be ambitious realist filmmakers. From the perspective of their adult audience, It's Kind of a Funny Story is a less interesting effort, but if nothing else, it's a sign that their career continues with integrity. Although the new film reaches for an ironic, self-aware tone, it doesn't transcend its young adult fiction origins (it's adapted from a Ned Vizzini novel). Still, this is a worthy effort about a self-absorbed teenager learning that there's more to life than scoring perfect 800s on the SAT and getting into exclusive summer camps. And, instead of obsessing over an unattainable female, why not strike up a conversation about Vampire Weekend with that nice girl down the hall?