Few American filmmakers in recent memory have matched the ability of co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to make small stories work in big ways. "Half Nelson" made a gritty, low key portrait of one teacher's struggles with the Brooklyn public school system into Oscar bait. Their follow-up, "Sugar," miraculously turned the immigrant experience in minor league baseball into a rousing sports movie. Given their proven track record for injecting socio-economic talking points into understated crowdpleasers, Boden and Fleck have earned the resources to make more of them. Unfortunately, their shift toward mainstream filmmaking with "It's Kind of a Funny Story" marks a confusing misstep, as though something were lost in translation. Straining from a painfully uneasy blend of dramatic clichés and poorly scripted gags, the movie plays like "One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest" remade as a rudimentary teen comedy.
A handful of naturalistic performances, the essential factor of the filmmakers' earlier projects, flounder in a screenplay weighed down by formula. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" tracks the plight of Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a shy 16-year-old Brooklyn private school student plagued by dreams of suicide. In a burst of inspiration, he checks himself into a psychiatric ward, where renovations force him to share space with adult patients for the week. These include hyperactive headcase Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), whose history of depression and marital conflicts make Craig's troubles look meek. Elsewhere, Craig finds a potential soulmate with Noelle (Emma Roberts), a fellow teen inmate marked by the scars of self-inflicted wounds. Their relationship calls into question Craig's crush on high school pal Nia (Zoe Kravitz), the girlfriend of his best friend Aaron (Thomas Mann). Needless to say, over the course of Craig's week-long stay, he learns typically poignant lessons about the challenges of growing up. Part buddy movie, part coming-of-age romantic comedy, everything about the plot reeks of familiarity -- the first sign of problems afoot.
Venturing into new turf, Boden and Fleck have made a stylized comedy with aspirations of whimsy in opposition to the actors' restraint. Gilchrist's blank stare registers when he vainly attempts to justify his feelings to the ward's resident shrink (Viola Davis), but it seems out of place when he turns to the camera and unloads his inner thoughts. Narrating his experience and explaining his background to the audience, Craig reveals the absurd fantasies that stem from his parents' unreasonable expectations of him. A series of arbitrary storytelling devices rush by: Craig imagines landing the American presidency and becoming an MTV celebrity, creating a goofy dissonance of personality and setting that destroys any room for emotional credibility. An extended sequence where Craig sings "Under Pressure," envisioning himself as the hard-rocking frontman in a band comprised of his fellow inmates, has plenty of dazzling visual appeal, but serves no immediate purpose beyond drawing out the running time.
It's hard to figure out why the filmmakers decided to embrace such a blunt sense of humor, taking several steps beyond reality despite hints of efforts to stay true to it. The sole coherent observation comes from Craig realizing the irony of applying to his fancy prep school when anyone with deep enough pockets gains easy admittance. But other details (i.e., an Orthodox Jewish inmate recovering from the "Hasidic acid scene in Williamsburg") belong to a lesser movie with more interest in oddball satire than authenticity. That might not matter if some of the jokes landed, but the chief hang-up of "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is that the title lies to you.
Meanwhile, Craig's psychological turmoil continually rings false. Even he admits that "my problems are less dramatic" than those of other inmates, a factor that deflates the crisis early on. There are glimmers of commentary about the drawbacks of overpriced schooling and overbearing scholastic pressures, but nothing in Craig's world resembles the true-to-life issues plaguing characters in "Sugar" and "Half Nelson." Even if that's part of the point, it's buried in mushy, self-aware quirkiness. "Sorry, guys," Craig tells the audience at a key turning point in his relationship with Noelle, "but this is about to get really sappy."
Unfortunately, apologies won't cut it. "It's Kind of a Funny Story" showcases a talented team going the wrong direction. Boden and Fleck aren't the only out-of-place forces; Galifianakis's bland performance may provide reason enough to scare him off from equally unconventional roles. Hopefully, it will have a similar effect on scaring these directors off from this useless type of project.