With only two feature films to their credit, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had already established themselves as an original, confident and exciting writing-directing team.
Their 2006 debut, "Half Nelson," featured Ryan Gosling in an Academy Award-nominated performance as a drug-addicted junior high school teacher who tries to turn his life around with help from a student. Their second film, 2008's "Sugar," could not have been more different: It followed an up-and-coming pitcher from the Dominican Republic struggling to make it here in the big leagues.
Both films stood out for the purity of their storytelling, the honesty of their characters and the complete lack of cliche even within genres that are pretty familiar.
All of this makes their third film, "It's Kind of a Funny Story," such a letdown. It has some strong performances from a solid cast - Zach Galifianakis especially stands out in an uncharacteristically meaty, serious role - but there are also some tonal inconsistencies, too much narration and ill-fitting fantasy sequences. Ultimately, the whole effort feels too pat, given that it's about something as complex as mental illness.
Based on Ned Vizzini's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" finds 16-year-old Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) riding his bike early one morning to check himself into a Brooklyn hospital. Seems he's been feeling suicidal and wants someone to fix this for him. When the doctor who examines him (Aasif Mandvi) agrees to admit him, Craig finds out he'll have to stay there for a minimum of five days, and can't just zip in and out overnight. And because the youth psychiatric ward is closed, he's placed in the adult ward.
His parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, both underused) are supportive; meanwhile, his high school friends view him as a rock star for doing something so daring, including his best friend's girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz), with whom he's secretly in love.
But Craig finds a new girl he clicks with in Noelle (Emma Roberts in a pleasingly more mature role), who is there because she's been cutting herself. They bond during arts and crafts night, and music hour. They're the only teenagers there so, naturally, they're going to hook up with each other.
Craig and Noelle also happen to be the most obviously well-adjusted of the lot. "It's Kind of a Funny Story" features all the stock characters you'd find in any movie set in a mental institution: a schizophrenic screaming to himself in the hallways; an obsessive-compulsive woman who always wears surgical gloves; a roommate who never gets out of bed. Viola Davis brings some substance and warmth as the hospital's staff psychiatrist; everyone else feels two-dimensional.
But it's Galifianakis' character, Bobby, who becomes a makeshift mentor to Craig, teaching him how to cheat the system and make the most of his time in the psych ward. The star of "The Hangover" shows some of his trademark offbeat humor, but he also has some more dramatic, volatile scenes that allow him to show off unexpected range.
If only Gilchrist himself had done the same. Granted, he's meant to be the straight man in a setting where everyone else is wildly unusual, but Gilchrist delivers his lines in a monotone throughout the movie and he never changes - which is a problem, since he's supposed to have undergone a massive internal transformation by the film's end.
"It's Kind of a Funny Story," a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language. Running time: 101 minutes.