With Sugar, the follow-up to their powerful debut feature Half Nelson, the writer/director team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden defied the expectations and conventions of the baseball movie to an almost perverse degree. It simply refused to give audiences the heartwarming payoffs they’re accustomed to getting. The arthouse duo appears to be making up for lost time, however, with It’s Kind of A Funny Story, an adaptation of a popular young adult novel that lovingly embraces all the crowd-pleasing formula that Sugar and Half Nelson eschewed.
Keir Gilchrist stars as an earnest young man who checks himself into a mental hospital over stupid teenage stuff: He’s nursing a painful crush on the girlfriend of an overachieving friend and is aquiver with anxiety over applying to a prestigious summer school program. Gilchrist hopes to pop in, resolve his issues, then pop out, but discovers that he must stay in the hospital for a minimum of five days. Gilchrist soon falls under the sway of Zach Galifianakis, a charismatic but troubled older patient who takes him under his wing.
Galifianakis’ magnetic performance suggests murky psychological depths the film doesn’t have the substance to plumb. Beneath his gnomic surface lies a surplus of pain and rage that slips out at inconvenient moments. It’s revelatory work, but Fleck and Boden too often relegate Galifianakis to the background to concentrate on the less compelling story of Gilchrist experiencing years’ worth of character-building life lessons in five action-packed days. Especially in its final act, Story trades verisimilitude for hokey clichés and embraces a painfully banal romantic subplot where Gilchrist has to choose between the dream girl for whom he’s long been pining and a quirky, self-destructive patient played by Emma Roberts. Though engaging and sweet, with a nice feel for the purgatory-like blankness of mental hospital life, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story suffers from a serious, if not quite fatal, attack of the cutes. The only known antidote for this crippling, depressingly ubiquitous affliction is a straight dose of the truth—a quality that, for all its good intentions and strong supporting performances, the film lacks.