It's Kind of a Funny Story

Worried by what he might do to himself in his continuously heightening state of depression, sixteen-year-old New Yorker Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist, "The United States of Tara") checks himself into a psychiatric hospital seeking a quick fix. Soon after his arrival, however, he's informed that there has been a five-day minimum mandate placed on his stay, which he'll have to serve out in the hospital's adult ward because the youth ward is under construction. With no other option than to make the most of it, Craig begins to confront his issues with the help of the hospital staff and his fellow patients.

Interspersed with a series of exaggerated flashbacks, grandiose daydreams and an often self-aware mode of narration, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" feels a bit like "(500) Days of Summer" stylistically, though its story is decidedly more innocent. While the film does take place almost entirely within the confines of a psychiatric hospital, it never exudes the aura of sterility generally associated with institutionalization. In fact, the hospital feels a bit like a small high school, though its inhabitants are slightly wackier than most teenagers and not nearly as cruel. Even the ward employees are hyper-friendly, especially Craig's ultra-nurturing psychiatrist (Viola Davis, "Doubt"), whose sessions are always peppered with just the right questions.

Because "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is essentially a comedy about something very serious, it's important that it employs a character that can keep the audience laugh-ready without completely diluting the somberness of Craig's depression. In this film, that character is Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, "The Hangover"), the ward's most popular patient and its most frequent customer. With Bobby taking the role of tour guide, Craig quickly acclimates to life in the hospital. In addition to explaining the ward's tricky point system and doling out crude relationship advice ("You should be on Coney Island bird-dogging chicks"), Bobby also acts as a source of quiet, yet vital, wisdom for Craig. "I don't get wrapped up in a bunch of stuff I can't have," Bobby tells his young friend over lunch. While it's a simple enough sentiment, it's precisely what Craig needs to hear.

A seemingly risky choice to play Bobby due in large part to his contribution to the incredible success of 2009’s bro-tastic comedy "The Hangover," Galifianakis is astonishingly balanced in this role. Sure, he can still raise us high with his delivery of lines like "my sweater smells like a hobo's band aide," but he can also cut us quick and deep, as evidenced by his reaction in a scene where his ex-wife tells him, in front of his treasured young daughter, that he's better off dead.

In addition to Galifianakis, the rest of the cast is first-rate. Gilchrist is patient and subtle when the camera draws close, which is often, but silly and uninhabited when necessary. I predict that his trippy rendition of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" will incite giddy claps from any "Glee" fan with the price of admission. Emma Roberts ("Nancy Drew," "Valentine's Day") eschews her usual cotton candy fare to play Craig's in-ward love interest, a mysteriously adorable teenager whose radiance makes the scars on her face that much sadder. Craig's parents, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan ("My Boys") and the beautiful Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls"), are a perfectly contrary duo that shed much light on Craig's troubled persona. Finally, the extensive stable of memorable ward patients and employees provide endless amusement, though they're essentially living, breathing cartoon characters.

Even if "It's Kind of a Funny Story," which hits theaters on October 8th, doesn't gain much attention from award shows later in the season, its combination of hilarity, heart and recite-worthy quotes certainly make it worth yours.

Note: After the final credits had crawled back into the reel, I had the opportunity to ask the film's directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who attended the same screening as I, about their choice in casting Zach Galifianakis as Bobby. Fleck told me that they were initially surprised by his interest in the part and a bit hesitant to consider him. Before making their decision, however, he and Boden invited Galifianakis to hang out with them at a bar so they could get a feel for him. As the evening wore on and the empty glasses mounted, both Fleck and his directing partner noticed a subtle change in the funnyman. "He became warmer," Fleck said of the generally sarcastic and sloppy comedian. It was Galifianakis' drunken genially that made the young directors confident that he was their Bobby.