*It's Kind of a Funny Story (PG-13)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three
Why does it always take so long for us to realize when talented comedians are more than just funny guys? It's depressing enough that gifted comic actors never seem to get real respect; apparently it's only "real" acting when you're playing a recovering addict, or mimicking a real-life person (and preferably both). But whenever someone who first established a reputation for comedy begins stretching out into more serious roles, he's treated like a 6-year-old putting on his dad's suit coat and tie.
It's simple-minded, and it's a quick way to lose sight of the range that Zach Galifianakis shows off to breathtaking effect in It's Kind of a Funny Story. He's been bumping around in movies and TV for more than a decade, but he's probably burned into most moviegoers' minds as the vacant-brained Alan from The Hangover. And if you're going to It's Kind of a Funny Story expecting wacky comedy, it'd be nice if you were amazed rather than disappointed.
Galifianakis is working with a pair of pretty talented filmmakers in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), adapting the semi-autobiographical novel by Ned Vizzini. The author's counterpart is Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist), a high-achieving 16-year-old New Yorker whose anxieties have led him to contemplate suicide. He checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, unaware that he's in for a mandatory five-day stay. So he begins forming tentative connections with the other residents, including a brash teen girl with self-inflicted scars named Noelle (Emma Roberts), and Bobby (Galifianakis), whose seemingly relative sanity hides some profound issues.
When a story is dealing with mentally ill characters, there's an extraordinarily high risk of degenerating into platitudes and holy-fool stereotypes. Fleck and Boden almost lose course the moment Craig first steps foot in the hospital: He tells a nurse he's thinking of killing himself, and she mutters, "Fill this out," while handing him a clipboard. (Cue the rimshot.) They recover pretty quickly, but with a bunch of conspicuously quirky supporting characters, the film feels ever on the verge of turning into kind of an exploitative story.
Yet it never quite does, and that's largely a function of how it handles its three central characters. Like Vizzini's book, the film recognizes that Craig's problems are nowhere near as profound as those of his fellow patients, yet still takes him seriously as a troubled kid looking for some balance in his life. Gilchrist's performance is relaxed and unaffected, and he has an easy rapport with Roberts, despite the near-impossibility of avoiding a sense of contrivance from this adult psychiatric ward also just happening to have a resident Craig's age.
But nearly everything that feels awkward or forced about It's Kind of a Funny Story disappears into the background whenever Galifianakis is at the center of a scene. He especially shines when burrowing into the genuine emotional pain behind Bobby's anti-authoritarian antics.
Do Fleck and Boden get a little over-aggressive with their attempts at giving the film visual zip, like diving into animations of Craig's dense "brain map" artwork? Sure. It's Kind of a Funny Story is as uneven a dramatic narrative in cinematic form as it was in literary form. But there's something particularly thrilling about being there for an artist's coming-out party, and that's what this feels like for Zach Galifianakis.