Having spun two uncommonly smart, tough-minded dramas with “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” writing-directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden make a gently disarming segue into pure comedy with “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” Adapting Ned Vizzini’s novel about a suicidal teen’s five-day stint in a psychiatric ward, the filmmakers fully retain their offbeat sensibility and attentiveness to character while providing perhaps the sharpest showcase yet for Zach Galifianakis’ outsized talents. Result is easily their most commercial feature but in no way represents an artistic compromise, suggesting Focus could parlay warm reviews into kind of a decent specialty haul.
A beautiful nighttime shot of New York places us inside the head of 15-year-old Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist, “United States of Tara”), who’s about to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, more to the disapproval than the concern of his parents (Jim Gaffigan, Lauren Graham) and younger sister (Dana De Vestern). As he tells us in voiceover, Craig may be dreaming, but his desire to off himself is real enough, stemming from intense academic pressure; a lifelong crush on his best friend’s g.f., Nia (Zoe Kravitz); and a recent unwise decision to go off his meds.
Skinny, awkward and prone to vomiting at random, Craig consults a doctor (Aasif Mandvi) and inadvertently gets himself admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric wing for a minimum five-day stay. But with the youth ward temporarily closed, Craig is forced to take up residence in the adult ward, run with calm, smiling efficiency by Dr. Eden Minerva (Viola Davis), yet ruled by longtime patient Bobby (Galifianakis), who takes Craig under wing (so to speak) during his short stay.
A genial wacko who likes to wear scrubs and displays an occasional belligerent streak, Bobby initiates Craig into the ward’s group activities, which include drawing and band performance; the latter builds to the film’s most out-there sequence, a musicvideo-style performance of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” that doesn’t feel entirely organic but delights all the same as a nutty expression of team solidarity. The ward’s other residents include Craig’s reclusive Egyptian roommate (Bernard White, whose face only gradually emerges from beneath the bedcovers); a patient with extremely sensitive hearing (“Old Joy’s” very funny Daniel London); and a comely 16-year-old, Noelle (Emma Roberts), whom Craig naturally finds himself drawn to.
Like some exceedingly benign, coming-of-age spin on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” conceives of a mental hospital as a place where a normal but stressed-out kid can work out his issues (in less than a week!) in the company of older, wiser if not necessarily better-adjusted companions. Yet while the film is fanciful, it’s never precious, and it has none of the smothering archness, the eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake, one might expect from this kind of indie quirkfest. Fleck and Boden’s touch is gentle, at times lighter than air, and they can coax laughs from their material with something as offhand as a quick cut (Boden, as usual, handled editing duties).
While Gilchrist is winningly earnest as a teenager in the grip of suicidal paranoia, the pic is most impressive as a conduit for Galifianakis’ electric comic persona. Where the recent studio-based “Dinner for Schmucks” showed the thesp at his most undisciplined, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” offers a lesson in how a little subtlety can go a long way. Here, Galifianakis is metaphorically if not literally straitjacketed, and there’s something fiercely poignant about Bobby’s deadpan scowl (making the actor at times resemble an angry, overgrown owl), as well as his tender exchanges with Craig, allowing him to be the father figure he clearly isn’t to his actual, briefly seen family.
Counting down the days until Craig’s departure, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the single location to which it’s confined for most of the zippy 100-minute running time. The ward is colorfully populated but realistically assembled by production designer Beth Mickle and art director Mike Ahern, furthering the sense that this “Story” is set in a twilight zone between fantasy and reality. Music is credited to Toronto-based band Broken Social Scene, which also provided tunes for “Half Nelson.”