Shot in a style that combines Wes Anderson's cultivated preciousness with the occasional visual flights of fancy that helped make (500) Days of Summer something of a generational statement, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's It's Kind of a Funny Story transforms One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into a soft-hearted John Hughes-ish coming-of-age tale.
Suicidal 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) checks himself into an ER and asks to be committed because he's suffering from severe depression and anxiety. The doctors agree, and soon he's admitted to a psych ward full of lovable loonies. There's Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), the guy who seems to know how the whole system works and quickly befriends Craig; another teen named Noelle (Emma Roberts), who cuts herself; an orthodox Jew named Solomon, who requires silence due to his oversensitive hearing; and Muqtada (Bernard White), Craig's severely agoraphobic roommate. As Craig learns to deal with the anxieties placed on him by a demanding father and a weak-willed but kindly mother, he starts to fall for Noelle. But will he be able to get everything together before his mandatory minimum stay of five days is complete?
With one exception, every scene paints Craig's fellow patients as harmless eccentrics, and even the one instance where there is a screaming breakdown, the character's tirade seems entirely justified. As Craig, Gilchrist displays comedic timing not unlike Justin Long's -- he's a 21st century dude through and through. He's also a smart enough performer to fall into Galifianakis' distinct comic rhythms. The filmmakers play many of Galifianakis' scenes in long single takes so we can savor the funnyman's elongated pauses -- they add a genuinely offbeat charm to a film that occasionally strains for it (like when a fantasy sequence finds the entire cast in full-on glam regalia performing Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure"). As the title indicates, It's Kind of a Funny Story is too cute by half, but at least Fleck and Boden are keenly aware of this, and seem to be as tickled by the proceedings as they want us to be.
Being one of the more respected young directing duos, Fleck and Boden are able to snag a stellar supporting cast, many of them for no more than two or three scenes each. Lauren Graham scores as Craig's mom, and Viola Davis, playing Craig's psychiatrist, comes off as the therapist anyone would wish for. Hovering over everything is the always offbeat Jeremy Davies as the soft-spoken warden of the psych ward -- it's a fairly good indication of how wacky the whole place is that Davies plays the man in charge.
While the movie lacks the realism of Fleck and Boden's previous efforts (Half Nelson and Sugar), it has the same level of humanism -- they never condescend to their characters. They don't prove to be masterful comedic filmmakers, but they do know how to put people on the screen that audiences like and respond to. All in all, It's Kind of a Funny Story plays like the pilot for a promising cable sitcom.