The film has many things working against it, not the least of which is that awkward, meaningless anything title, which sounds a lot more like a CBS sitcom than any kind of movie. The story of a suicidal 16-year-old that checks himself in to a hospital psych ward features a collection of disturbed, but not too disturbed, patients, a slew of saintly doctors and nurses, an exceedingly cute fellow patient for our hero to fall for, and an all too neat and tidy ending. That it manages to work at all is a testament to its uniformly charming cast and a directorial team that knows enough to stay out of their way most of the time.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck co-directed the film as well as co-writing the screenplay (based on a Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini). Their prior film (also co-directed and written) was the unassuming and modest baseball film, Sugar. Funny Story shares many of the traits that made Sugar such a breath of fresh air: It moves at a measured, unhurried pace, for one thing, and there is a sense of breath and space unusual for a film that is predominantly confined to one floor of a hospital. In fact, its tone is in many ways the opposite of the claustrophobic, ‘on edge’ feeling one would expect given the subject matter.
This tone is also a reflection of the uniformly low-key performances of its leads. Keir Gilchrist strikes just the right balance of angst and sweetness as Craig, the neurotic, suicidal over-achieving teen. It’s a role that could have been unsympathetic in the wrong hands -- he is, after all, an extremely bright, fairly privileged young man with just about everything going for him (at least on the surface). But Gilchrist manages to help us sense his character’s very real anxiety without over-selling it. He doesn’t truly belong with the schizophrenics and genuinely disturbed, but he also doesn’t come off as a spoiled brat wallowing in petty concerns. And Zach Galifianakis tones down his usual unhinged behavior to play (off all things) a truly unhinged character. Bobby is a long-term patient who takes Craig under his wing while wrestling with the very real possibility of being homeless when his hospital stay is terminated. Bobby is not quite right somehow, but Galifianakis plays him just close enough to sane that when he does lash out it has a significant impact.
It’s a shame, then, that the filmmakers occasionally muddy up these clear waters with some rather unnecessary devices. The occasional voice-overs and freeze-frames (even animation) are fairly unobtrusive, but a fantasy sequence involving the patients performing the Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure” in full-on glam-by-way-of-the-Muppet-Show attire almost derails it. The song choice itself is way too on the nose for comfort. Do we really need our tortured teenage lead singing “Under pressure we’re cracking!” and “why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” while his fellow patients make like Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem? Luckily, one (seriously) false move is not enough to ruin film’s otherwise low-key charms