Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
(2010, PG-13, 91 min)
★ ★

It’s Kind of a Funny Story begins promisingly, with shots on the Brooklyn Bridge at night, where Craig (Keir Gilchrist) abandons his bicycle and prepares to jump. He’s interrupted by his mother (Lauren Graham), father (Jim Gaffigan), and precocious little sister (Dana DeVestern). They express their concern, for the bike and not for him.

But it’s only a dream.

It’s a recurring dream, and when he wakes up, he pedals himself to the hospital; he’s self-aware enough to know he has a problem and can’t solve it himself. As we learn more about him, we get a sense of the overwhelm of 21st Century adolescence: competing for academic plaudits and juggling extracurricular activities that’ll look good on college applications, all the while struggling with the usual high school hormones. He has a therapist and a Zoloft prescription. And he can’t decide if he wants to die.

This could be a fascinating film about modern, anxiety-driven teenagers. What a disappointment then how quickly it slips into platitudes and cliches. Directors and screenwriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck previously made Half Nelson, a tough and gritty film about drug addiction, and here go for a lighter touch, but lighter is not what this story needs. They impose a comfortable geniality that perhaps makes their film more commercially viable, but undermines their subject, reducing Craig’s crisis to a boy-meets-girl dilemma and some “Follow your dreams” grade-school philosophizing.

Emma Roberts, as Noelle

The mental patients themselves are a collection of comic-relief behavioral tics. Their specific disorders are left mostly vague; they exist mostly to be lovably wacky. There’s the Hasidic Jew with bat-like hearing who asks everyone to be quiet. And the schizophrenic who shouts non-sequiturs. And an Egyptian shut-in who never leaves his room. The film never fully invests in them as characters, and the use of their illnesses for comic effect feels more condescending than I think the filmmakers intended. The audience I sat with laughed a lot. I smiled some, and then I didn’t feel like smiling so much.

The ubiquitous Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Dinner for Schmucks) makes a bid for dramatic credibility as Bobby, another patient in the mental ward. The actor proves his mettle, but the role as written doesn’t rise to his abilities. It’s a very conventional and diagrammatic character type: the charismatic clown whose humor masks sadness, whom Craig looks up to only to realize, Maybe my life isn’t so bad after all. From his eccentric early scenes to his words of wisdom and looks of longing at Craig and all his youthful promise, Bobby feels more like an agent of a screenplay than an organic character.

I don’t think the film deals honestly with Craig’s emotional problem or earns his resolution. The life lessons are too pat, too easily learned, an expedited crash course in healing that sidesteps any tough, meaningful insights about being a teenager or mentally ill. The great Viola Davis is wasted as the hospital’s resident psychiatrist. She evaluates Craig, but her role is limited to giving compassionate looks and approving smiles during Craig’s confessional scenes and breakthroughs.

Gilchrist, now 18, is a gifted young actor. He’s most familiar from the Showtime comedy series United States of Tara, where he plays the teenage son of a woman with multiple personalities. He has a haunted, cerebral quality that makes him a good fit for this role, and he, like Galifianakis, is capable of digging deeper than the screenplay does. His love interest, Noelle (Emma Roberts), has scars from self-mutilation, but she’s really into Vampire Weekend and that’s what matters in the end. A mental hospital isn’t the best place to hook up, Craig tells a friend over the phone. I think he had the right idea.