Monday, February 7, 2011

On DVD: "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

There’s a strangeness to Zach Galifiankis’s comic persona, which in his best moments (particularly when he was more active as a stand-up) teeters right on the brink of darkness. His oddness is so authentic that he can, at times, seem genuinely unhinged; he’s got something akin to the unapproachable genius of Andy Kaufman, and if there is a drawback to his newfound film success, it’s that it’s taken him off the stage and away from the opportunity to go into possibly uncharted waters. But here we have It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a film that seizes that darkness, molds it, and pushes it as far as it can go. By now, the wacky comedian turned serious actor has become such a standard movie-industry trope that we tend to sneer when another comic takes the leap. But with Galifianakis, the transition to the dramatic doesn’t seem like a stretch, or even a surprise.

The movie that surrounds him, however, is no great shakes, or at least has nothing about it that is nearly as unpredictable or refreshing as his performance in it. This is a disappointment, because it comes by way of writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose previous films handily and skillfully transcended the seemingly inevitable clichés of the stories they told, be it the inner-city teacher trying to save a student he takes a shine to (Half Nelson) or the baseball player coming to America to find his fortune (Sugar).

Here, working from the popular young-adult novel by Ned Vizzini, the coming-of-age story and transformative-mental-hospital tale are told pretty much as expected. The focus is on 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital because he’s contemplating suicide. Due to renovations in the teen ward, he finds himself mixing with the adult patients, including Bobby (Galifiankis), an easygoing long-timer who knows the ins and outs of the joint. Craig quickly realizes that (comparatively speaking) he’s not quite as screwed up as he thought, but he’s committed, so there you have it.

There are girl complications: Noelle (Emma Roberts), a fellow patient who he quickly takes to, and Nia (Zoe Kravitz), his long-time crush on the outside, who suddenly finds Craig attractive when she finds out how screwed-up he is. And there is the family dynamic, with the ineffectual mother (Lauren Graham) and the father (Jim Gaffigan) who’s too busy working to pay attention to his son.

Boden and Fleck seem to know that they’re traveling a well-worn road here, and they attempt to supplement the oft-told tale with stylistic flourishes and comic digressions. But most of their attempts and cleverness and invention come across as cutesy or even cloying (with the sole exception of a fantasy sequence set to Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure” that somehow manages to harness the considerable emotional force of that song).

Ultimately, it’s a film about performances. Gilchrist does his best, but he’s honestly a bit of a blank slate; there’s nothing wrong with his work, but nothing terribly memorable about it either. Graham and Gaffigan are pretty well wasted in their unremarkable supporting roles. But Jeremy Davies (whose presence in a movie like this is all but a foregone conclusion) is rather wonderful, and Kravitz continues to develop into an interesting (and crushingly luminous) screen presence. Nothing would be easier than to discount Roberts as a mere beneficiary of nepotism (and Aunt Julia surely helped open some initial doors), but here and in Lymelife, she’s proving herself a charming and charismatic actress.

If the film is worth seeing, though (and it probably is), it’s for Galifianakis. His work is somewhat reminiscent of Robin Williams’s first dramatic breakthrough, in The World According to Garp—it’s not a humorless piece of work, as evidenced by moments like his attempt to help Craig practice asking Noelle out. But the character’s inner sadness grounds the performance (and anchors the rather lightweight film); it’s a turn that’s both spontaneous and precise, in which anything seems possible—for the character and for the actor. There’s real anger when he snaps at Craig, and real danger and pain when he loses his shit at a particularly difficult moment. This is not a stand-up screwing around for kicks; this is a real actor of real skill.

Late in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Craig asks Bob if he wants to hang out some time. The way Galifianakis responds to that, the specific choices he makes in that moment (which is ultimately more bitter than sweet) suggest that, right then, he has a deeper and more nuanced understanding of his character’s fate than the movie’s requisite feel-good ending will allow. As a movie, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is nothing new, and at times its familiarity is borderline irritating. As an appreciation of a unique and gifted actor, however, it is a tremendous success.

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 8th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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