It’s Kind of a Funny Story isn’t funny. Worse still, it’s also not touching, clever, original, or really tolerable unless you have a nostalgic fondness for mid-‘90s coming-of-age dramas told through self-consciously quirky devices. That the film is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the duo behind the sober Half Nelson and Sugar, is certainly unexpected, given that their prior work went light on gimmickry and heavy on restrained character-based indie drama. And it’s most definitely a turn for the worse, what with their latest material (based on Ned Vizzini’s novel) proving to be syrupy mush, a transparent wish-fulfillment fantasy for mopey adolescents in which I’m-so-tortured narcissism is indulged and romanticized, and then ultimately washed away in a finale of I-heal-you, you-heal-me uplift. However, despite a nominal concentration on the teen angst of pseudo-suicidal prep schooler Craig (Keir Gilchrist), it’s real focus is its own snarky style, with first-person narration, sudden flashbacks, cutesy film and still-photo montages, and a gaggle of endearingly weird and wacky freaks all trotted out with a self-satisfaction that’s downright obnoxious.
Boden and Fleck’s fairy tale follows Craig as he commits himself to a Manhattan mental ward out of fear that he may jump off a bridge, a fate that would have been merciful to the audience, since it would have spared us (having to sit through) the odyssey he instead finds himself on alongside New York City’s looniest. His mentor inside quickly becomes Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), the awkwardly droll McMurphy of this cuckoo nest, whose witty remarks mask underlying pain, trauma, and illness. Regardless, Bobby is empathetic because he acts normal (or, at least, in normal Galifianakis style), which is also true of Noelle (Emma Roberts), the fetching brunette whose wrist and cheek scars suggest serious problems that are otherwise completely absent from her well-adjusted personality and behavior. With the aid of these two conveniently lovable compatriots, as well as a host of peripheral crazies whose purpose is to blurt out random, schizophrenic remarks and/or noises in a condescending bid for humor, Craig learns to deal with growing up. That process entails coming to grips with both an emotionally absent father (Jim Gaffigan) pressuring him to apply to a ritzy school and his stymied affection for his best friend’s girlfriend, Nia (Zoé Kravitz), not to mention coping with—quirk alert!—his sudden outbursts of “stress vomiting.”
As befitting an empty-headed affair beholden to a stale formula, Craig achieves liberation via contrived circumstances (including a group rendition of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” shot as a glam-rock music video), winds up finally nabbing the superficial Nia just as he finds true love with Noelle, and eventually mends, and is mended by, Bobby and his ragtag oddballs. Along the way, artistic creativity trumps educational ambition, anxiety is alleviated by damaged beauties, and carpe diem, carpe diem, carpe diem! Throughout, Craig proves a navel-gazing twit who treats mental illness as merely an adorable and cool affectation (he’s even called “Cool Craig” by Bobby) to be tried out for a while, and discarded once it’s no longer useful.
Boden and Fleck’s competent, bland aesthetics do little more than occasionally amplify their material’s cloying sentimentality, and their cast’s performances are equally unremarkable except for their uniform willingness to indulge in schmaltzy bathos whenever possible. Which is always, and always gracelessly. Nonetheless, in terms of missteps, it remains up for debate whether the most egregious is a nauseating subplot involving Craig coaxing a scraggly Egyptian man out of bed via some Middle Eastern music, or the fact that Jeremy Davies—who’s made a career out of chewing scenery as twitchy wackos—is stuck playing the sanest character in the sanitarium.