A Not-So-Beautiful Mind – Don’t expect any brilliance from ‘Funny Story’

 Keir Gilchrist, left, and Zach Galifianakis star in ñIt's Kind of a Funny Story.Ó K.C. Bailey Photo

Keir Gilchrist, left, and Zach Galifianakis star in ñIt’s Kind of a Funny Story.Ó
K.C. Bailey Photo

Teenage mental illness forms the center of writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” As a result, one might expect a drama along the lines of their debut “Half Nelson” (2006), which tackled heroin addiction from a fresh perspective, or the little-seen “Sugar” (2008), which follows a kid from the Dominican Republic and his desire to play professional baseball. Those were good indie films, and “Funny Story” makes a step toward the mainstream by adapting a popular young adult novel by Ned Vizzini.

But by edging toward box office success, they’ve dropped a lot of the writing skills that made their debuts so successful. In trade, they get a great performance from co-star Zach Galifianakis, who the studio is using to suggest this is some sort of follow up to “The Hangover.” It’s not.

Instead, we meet 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) who harbors suicidal thoughts and decides to check in to a hospital. Thinking he will get a prescription and make his way home, he is instead placed under five days’ observation in a ward shared by adults and teenagers.

A shared ward, of course, is a writer’s ruse to intermingle a stressed teen with adults who have greater life problems and experiences. First among them is Galifianakis’ Bobby, who voluntarily checks himself in regularly. Nearly homeless and suicidal, Bobby has an estranged wife and a daughter he holds dear, but he covers up his pain with humor, seeking out Craig to offer brotherly and fatherly advice.

There’s also a cute girl, Noelle (Emma Roberts), whose face and wrists show signs of cutting. (They meet cutely from across a crowded lunch room, and he projectile barfs across the table.) Their budding relationship gets contrasted with his longtime crush on his best friends’ girlfriend, Nia (Zoë Kravitz). He tells her to visit the ward any time, and you can guess how the complication will start. And you’ll be right.

Aside from Bobby, the other patients serve either as comic punctuation (an elderly schizophrenic repeatedly shouts out after serious moments) or as problems for Craig to solve as he grows in character (his middle-aged Egyptian roommate who won’t leave his bed).

Fleck films most of “Funny Story” in myopic, often making viewers feel as though they had left their glasses at home. He also attempts some Wes Anderson-style segments to fill in Craig’s background and inner life, and like in “Youth in Revolt,” there is an unnecessary animated sequence. But unlike in Anderson’s films, none of these segments really advance the plot or characters. A fantasy sequence where Craig leads the glammed-out patients in a cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure” is better, if only because the song is still very catchy.

The main problem with “Funny Story” is that we never feel that Craig needs to be a patient. For somebody suffering bouts of depression, he only seems confused and shy, as if the filmmakers didn’t dare test our empathy with the character.

However, the mostly young adult audience at the preview screening enjoyed it. Craig and Noelle make a cute couple, Bobby’s problems (and Galifianakis’ subdued, nuanced performance) give the film the weight it otherwise lacks, and the soundtrack is full of toe-tappers. Just don’t expect any brilliance.

‘IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY’
2 ½
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language
Length: 100 minutes
Playing at: Fiesta 5

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