I was 18 years old when Garden State opened in Seattle, and having already spent several introspective nights watching the trailer and listening to Frou Frou's "Let Go" (the song from the trailer), I had no trouble connecting with the movie. Now, 6 years later, although it's surrounded by a certain sense of nostalgia, I can see it's far from a perfect movie. I guess it's possible that It's Kind of a Funny Story could speak to a similar audience in a similar way, but it's a Z-grade carbon copy, trading in the genuine, honestly-felt emotion that Zach Braff put into his film -- one of that movie's strongest suits -- for artificial comedy, jaw-droppingly poor directorial decisions, and a painfully trite ending that made me mildly nauseous.
Right off the bat we're off on the wrong foot with a 1) comically exaggerated dream sequence where Craig (Keir Gilchrist) talks to his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) and precocious younger sister (Dana DeVestern), which 2) Craig interrupts using freeze-frame, so he can give backstory about his "situation" in voice-over. After waking from the dream, he heads to the local mental hospital to check himself in, where 3) he's forced to stay five days, which are identified by title cards. From there, we meet 4) a lovable band of misfit crazies, led by Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who immediately warm to Craig and his so-called problems. Not shockingly, Craig will also 5) meet a girl, named Noelle (Emma Roberts), who seems cool and interesting.
Through no fault of anyone but myself, I missed both of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's previous efforts, Half Nelson and Sugar, but after enduring Funny Story, let's just say it's a good thing those films have such powerful critical praise behind them, or I'd never bother catching up. From beginning to end, this is a stomach-churningly sweet sugar bomb of a movie, lobbed with an even lazier arm than even the lamest "quirky indie" comedies, at audiences that want to be fooled into thinking they're watching an insightful movie without leaving behind the comforts of pandering Hollywood filmmaking. There are moments in this movie that scrape barrel bottoms as low as your average Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl movie (in particular, an embarrassingly contrived moment when Craig doesn't realize Noelle is standing right behind him; if this exact same thing didn't happen in at least one of Julia Roberts' movies, I'll eat my hat).
The film's major failing is how tired and unoriginal it feels, from frame one straight to the end, both in terms of the kinds of movies it's aping (the film crams in an elaborate animated transition, which leads to a childhood flashback in which the 18-year-old Gilchrist plays himself at 5, before trumping both with an agonizing full-costume musical fantasy number where the characters lip-synch to the entirety of "Under Pressure") and more general coming-of-age cliches (there's a sequence where Gilchrist and Roberts escape the confines of the loony wing and run around the hospital in doctor garb, avoiding the head psychiatrist, Viola Davis, in ways that are so close to the kids avoiding Vernon in The Breakfast Club it might as well be shot-for-shot). Beyond that, is there any viewer that doesn't realize from the second he appears on screen that a recluse roommate will ultimately crawl out of his shell thanks to Craig's actions, or both whether or not and even how the love triangle between Craig, the girl he likes (Zoe Kravitz) and his best friend (Thomas Mann) will work out, OR that a wishful-thinking pizza party will become a reality? Each plot point lands with the grace of a wrecking ball, aided by the subtlety of a baby banging pots and pans together.
These issues extend even to Galifianakis, who gives a somewhat valiant effort to bring weight to the words but can't quite make it work. If I really went out on a limb about the performance he gives here, I'd be inclined to guess that Galifianakis signed on with good intentions but realized what he was in for before the cameras started rolling, because he only invests at about half speed. Then again, at least he puts forth a bit of heart and emotion into the empty void Boden and Fleck have crafted. It's only fitting, then, that the film's conclusion completely ignores him, stringing him along as an illustration of the person Craig could become if he's not careful, then forgetting about him completely right around the time Craig's worked out all of his relatively insignificant, normal-kid problems as neatly as one makes their bed and started into his courtship of Noelle, where they talk about Radiohead and Vampire Weekend. It's Kind of a Funny Story is a shot of cinematic novocaine, disguised as a friendly life lesson. Even the title stinks. I propose a change; if they'd called it Once More With Feeling, then at least it'd be half right.
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