Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nesting Cuckoos

My local art house is staging the Citizen Jane film festival right now, a festival devoted to movies by women. One of the films they've co-opted from their regular schedule is It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck). After the screening of the film, the film's production designer, Beth Minkle, came out for a Q&A with the audience, and somewhere during the session, she noted that they took some liberties with reality. The movie is set in a mental ward, but the patients there seem to have the run of the hospital without much in the way of supervision. Although Ned Vizzini, the author of the book on which this film is based, used his own experiences as a template for the story, this is pretty much a fantasy.

The story here follows, Craig, a teenage kid who is having suicidal thoughts as he checks himself into a mental ward. The teen ward is undergoing renovations at the time, so the hospital has lumped kids and adults into the same ward, thus bringing him into contact with Bob, a man who has attempted suicide on six separate occasions. Bob takes Craig under his wing and shows him the ropes of the ward, introducing him to the various colorful inmates. Craig also meets Noelle, a pretty girl who is a cutter and who seems sweet on him. During the course of his time here, Craig learns to shrug off the high pressure for academic achievement from his parents and exclusive school while learning from and helping his fellow patients. He gets the girl. He gets the life of his dreams. The end.

This is an amiable, occasionally funny movie. It's not particularly poignant, even though it aims at drama from time to time. The emotional wounds on display in this film don't seem deep enough for drama. For a movie set in a mental ward with suicidal patients, this seems like a flaw, but it has deeper flaws. At the risk of seeming thin-skinned, I'm kind of sick of tranny jokes. There's one in this movie, and it's the point where I stopped enjoying it. A tranny in a mental ward, ha hah. Whatever. But this is part of a larger pattern where the film casts its patients by outward identity. There's the Hassidic Jew who took too much acid, the Muslim guy who's borderline catatonic, the teenage girl who's a cutter, etc. It moves these characters around like chess pieces and uses their derangements as comic fodder, but it never really gives us a sense that these characters are in any real pain. This goes doubly for our lead character, who comes from such privilege and from such a non-dysfunctional environment that there are points in the film where I wanted to slap him, Cher style, and shout, "Snap out of it!"

The movie is most interesting, I think, for its form, for the continuing post-modern fracturing of traditional narrative. The movie it most reminds me of--Woody Allen's Annie Hall--is over thirty years old now (hell, this film is even a New Yawk movie). This film, like Allen's film, is rife with asides and flourishes just for the hell of it, including animated sequences, a fantasy rock video, and various placings of our young hero into flashbacks and alternate realities. As film, it's fairly playful, which mitigates the content some. It's fun to watch, which is surprising given the drab setting of the movie. Kudos to the directors for enlivening what could have been a dreary slog of a movie. The actors, particularly Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts, are likable, too, which helps a lot. Still, this is all pretty middlebrow stuff.

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