It’s Kind of a Funny Story is not a new Cuckoo’s Nest

During the last 30 years in American cinema, one recurrent theme has stood out more than the rest: The teenage experience is often harsh, but a necessary rite of passage. The turbulent emotions and relationships that pervade a teenager’s life appeared in films prior to the 1980s, but it was filmmaker John Hughes that perfectly rendered teenage angst into cinematic form with classics such as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Head cases · Kier Gilchrist (left) stars as Craig, a teenager overwhelmed by all of life’s challenges who checks himself into a mental institution, alongside veteran actors Jeremy Davies (right) and Viola Davis. - Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Hughes’ influence still lives today, apparent in the newest addition to the teen genre, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which salutes the work of the late Hughes as it also attempts to push the genre boldly forward into unknown cinematic territory.

In an interview conducted earlier this year, producer Kevin Misher described the film’s concept as “a teen version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” With Focus Features attached to the project — the company behind such groundbreaking films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich — viewers cannot be faulted for seeing Focus Features’ most recent release with the hopes of witnessing the same biting social commentary and meticulous acting that made Cuckoo’s Nest immortal.

Indeed, the filmmakers must be applauded for their uninhibited ambition. Unfortunately, ambition doesn’t guarantee results and, consequently, the only characteristic that It’s Kind of a Funny Story shares with the Best Picture winner is the psychiatric ward setting.

Depressed 16-year old Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist with predictably generous doses of glum and morose) is completely overwhelmed by the chaotic merry-go-round of homework, girls, pushy parents and college applications that make up his daily life as a high school student in Brooklyn.

After entertaining thoughts of suicide, Craig commits himself to Argenon Hospital’s psychiatric ward, where he is transferred to live with the adult patients while renovations are made to the youth ward. During his minimum-length five-day stay, Craig cultivates friendships, realizes important life lessons and develops a romance with another teen patient, Noelle, portrayed with equal amounts of spunk and insecurity by Julia Roberts’ niece, Emma Roberts.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story’s main draw is the welcome dramatic turn for bearded funnyman Zach Galifianakis. After his career caught fire with his genius performance as the eccentric brother-in-law-to-be Alan in The Hangover, the comedian added another dimension to his talent when he accepted the challenge of playing against type in It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

With a slight wink to Jack Nicholson’s anarchic Randle McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest, Galifianakis’ character, Bobby, is a rebellious adult patient who takes the young Craig under his wing and teaches him the ins and outs of the ward. Galifianakis’ oddball quirks that made Alan so endearing are also present in Bobby. During one sequence in which the hospital patients perform their own rendition of the rock ballad “Under Pressure,” the image of Galifianakis, decked out in a David Bowie costume complete with a glitter-speckled beard, provides sheer comic enjoyment.

Yet, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck seem to be cautious with his dramatic scenes. Bobby’s soul-bearing moments seem to be as brief as possible, almost as if the directors were afraid that audiences will not be convinced by Galifianakis’ performance. This tactic would be understandable for first-time directors; however Boden and Fleck have already proved their sophistication in directing actors with 2006’s Half Nelson, in which Ryan Gosling received an Oscar nomination for his performance as an inner-city teacher.

Bogged down by sensitive material, few jokes that actually work and the filmmakers’ apprehension to allow the film to transition into dramatic moments, It’s Kind of a Funny Story simply cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be.

Galifianakis’ brief but heart-rending scenes involving his estranged wife and daughter are proof of his promising dramatic talent, but the rest of the cardboard cut-out characters cannot be redeemed by a cast of fine actors, including Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies.

The problem with the film is not its implausible claim that an adult psychiatric ward is a great place for a teenager to learn life lessons. The problem is, for a film that belongs to a genre that prides itself in presenting relatable emotions and situations, there is actually very little to relate to here.