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You'll have to forgive me for delaying this review of It's Kind Of A Funny Story until this late in the festival, a solid four days after I saw it-- which is like a year in film festival time. I had such high hopes for the new film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the directing duo behind two tremendous small-scale indies, Half-Nelson and Sugar. And though It's Kind Of A Funny Story is technically an indie, released by Focus Features and not too out of place here in Toronto, it is many orders of magnitude larger than anything the directors have done before. It would have been a big enough step for the duo to even work with a cast of professional actors (Sugar starred almost entirely newcomers), but Funny Story is broader, bigger and more traditional than Boden and Fleck's previous work-- and unfortunately, significantly less successful.
The thing is, the indie film scene is cluttered with cutesy comedies about teenagers with relatively minor problems and colorful characters to hang out with; this film's stars Keir Gilchrist and Emma Roberts have acted in their fair share of them. But while Boden and Fleck bring some of their trademark gifts for observing humanity and accepting the more complicated twists of human nature, the story sticks firmly to the indie playbook, right down to the climactic kiss on a roof and even a musical number that expresses the characters' innermost feelings. It's not that the directors weren't allowed to change it up, but without their handheld camera and naturalistic feel, all the depth and honesty of their filmmaking seems to have vanished as well.
The one good reason to see the film is the performance from Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, an adult on the mental ward where teenage Craig (Gilchrist) winds up by accident after seeking help for suicidal thoughts. While Gilchrist simply doesn't have the charisma to carry the movie's low-key comedy, Galifianakis is once again a scene-stealer, playing Bobby as an adventurous and slightly wild but recognizably human character, a dad back on the mental ward after six suicide attempts. Bobby serves as Craig's buddy and mentor in the week Craig spends in the hospital, and while Craig's coming-of-age and romantic subplot (with the unengaging Roberts) never takes flight, Bobby's struggle with his own demons lends a heartbreaking edge. Anyone paying attention could have expected that "the guy from The Hangover" had this in him, but it's still pretty wonderful to see Galifianakis open up, slow down, and level out the film's uneven tone every time he returns to the scene.
Unfortunately everything around him is a bit of a mess, as the consistently lighthearted tone belies what should be a real sadness at the heart of all these characters. Even before the glammed-up "Under Pressure" musical number, which occurs too early in the film to mean much of anything, the movie seems to be going entirely for the surface level, allowing single quirks to stand for full character development and even Craig's endless voiceover monologue to spout platitudes rather than actual revelations about the story. All kinds of great characters actors are squandered in bit parts that go nowhere, from Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's aloof parents to Viola Davis as the no-nonsense psychiatrist-- when an actress as talented as Davis snags another movie that's something beyond "no-nonsense ____," please let me know.
Moviegoers not battered by the endless stream of shallow quirk indies may find themselves swept along by Funny Story, and it's entirely fair to argue that critics enamored with Boden and Fleck's previous work were just expecting Funny Story to be something it's not. I'd love to see the two of them master mainstream filmmaking and even comedy, but not at the expense of losing their voice, one of the most distinct and important in American independent filmmaking. Here's hoping that in a few years we'll be able to chalk this one up to growing pains.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.