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Nutty buddies: Gilchrist and Galifianakis in It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Fun In a Psych Ward

By John Rodat

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

The title It’s Kind of a Funny Story suggests a kind of fond and forgiving nostalgia: “Oh, remember those foolish days of yore. Weren’t we nutty, back then?” Which is a bit weird when the subject is clinical depression and suicidal ideation—you know, not wild ’n’ crazy, but crazy crazy.

Keir Gilchrist plays Craig, a 16-year-old stressed out by the expectations imposed on his coterie of high-achieving, Brooklyn-based peers and by adolescence, in general. Gone are the day-long, aimless bike rides to Coney Island, through Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, across the Brooklyn bridge, etc., with a best buddy. They’ve been replaced by college-track competition and, of course, by chicks.

Earnest and sensitive, Craig begins picturing ways out of his frustration and confusion: plummeting from the aforementioned bridge, for example. At the advice of a suicide-prevention hotline operator, he checks himself into a hospital, only to find that he has unknowingly committed himself for a stay of not less than 5 days. Additionally, because the teen ward is undergoing renovations, his week will be spent among adult patients—some of whom are so deeply troubled as to seem irretrievable.

The most charismatic of those interred is Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), an avuncular rebel who takes Craig under his wing. Bobby is, of course, more damaged than is first apparent, and the logic of the film dictates we shall discover a darker side to his high-fiving and familiar camaraderie with the staff and his protective instincts toward Craig. The other patients—with the exception of pretty, troubled teen, Noelle (Emma Roberts)—are there mostly to add eccentric color. She is there, of course, as a love interest better suited to him than the outside-world object of his obsession, who also happens to be his best friend’s girl.

This is another strange mitigation of the reality of mental illness. Much as a five-day stay in an adult ward seems an unlikely spa for a bummed-out but otherwise upscale urban kid, hooking up with a death-obsessed self-cutter seems an unlikely escape from the stress of teen romantic rivalry. It’s Kind of a Funny Story doesn’t follow these stories to—or even intimate towards—their logical ends.

Is it likely that Craig and Noelle will make their date to see Vampire Weekend once released, and draw strength from their respective quirks? Is six-time-attempted suicide Bobby so buoyed by his interaction with young Craig that his fate in the outside world is rosier? Does an LP of Middle Eastern music spun in the day room have the power to animate the catatonic, and to get an Egyptian and a Jew boogying next to each other, ’cause the mental ward is just a microcosm of the . . .

OK. Clearly, the filmmakers were not trying to remake One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s not deep; it’s not challenging; it’s not particularly ambitious. The actors are appealing (here as elsewhere, Galifianakis’s alternating currents of deadpan and demented mark him as the most likely successor to Bill Murray). It’s cute and entertaining. It’s, uh huh, kind of a funny story.

 

Clone Bores

Never Let Me Go

Directed by Mark Romanek

Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a handsomely made dystopian fantasy about attractive young clones created to die in the service of their betters—“real” humans. It’s a terrifying idea, set in an alternate post-war England that’s mostly off-screen.

It’s meant to be a tragic situation. And it is tragic, at moments—but only at moments. Director Mark Romanek (maker of the equally ill-judged drama One Hour Photo) fails to conjure enough context to stop the poor clones from being more irritating than pitiable. Add to this the director’s woeful sense of pace, and you’ve got an awfully long 104 minutes of saintly suffering.

There are no surprises here. We learn early on what the ultimate fate of the children at the secluded, handsome gothic school Hailsham will be: upon reaching adulthood, they will undergo three organ donations and then “completion,” i.e., death. So there’s little suspense.

(There is no suspense if you had the misfortune to see the film’s trailer, which, annoyingly, contains most of the film’s significant “big reveals.” OK, the trailer didn’t show Keira Knightley’s character lovely and dead on a gurney with her liver deposited in a travel pouch, but it’s not exactly a surprise when it happens.)

Soulful Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) is in love with goofy Tommy (Charlie Rowe), who is also coveted by sassy troublemaker Ruth (Ella Purnell). This budding triangle is set against the formality of Hailsham, which is very like a regular English boarding school, though it is even more intensely isolated. With the exception of one sympathetic teacher (aka “guardian”), played with a mix of intellectual curiosity and sadness by Sally Hawkins, the adults tell the children nothing. This fosters a climate of uncertainty fed by rumors and false notions that will remain at the center of the clones’ lives forever.

All-grown-up Ruth easily captures dopey-but-lovable Tommy, much to the sadness of perpetually mopey Kathy. At 18 they’re shipped off to an isolated farmhouse, where they are “left to their own devices” until it’s time to start putting out for the “National Organ Programme.”

Carey Mulligan spends a lot of time lost in suffering as Kathy; this grows wearying. Knightley is more engaging as the mean-spirited Ruth, despite the distracting presence of drape-like bangs which overwhelm her face. And Andrew Garfield makes an interesting Tommy as he transforms, sadly, from a charmingly boyish young adult to a surgery-depleted wreck. (To reiterate what I wrote last week in a review of The Social Network, Garfield will be an intensely—annoyingly?—emo Spider-Man.)

And yet, even with all this doom and death, Never Let Me Go never becomes compelling. It’s genteel to a fault; the film fails to make us understand why these kids are so docile about their fate. Why do they accept death so quietly? God knows, young people have been going cheerfully to their deaths since the dawn of man; why is this drama so unconvincing? There are occasional, astute references to the larger society, but these barely pierce the isolation of the clones and insular world of the film—and if isolation is the reason, it isn’t reason enough.

—Shawn Stone

 

Comes a horsewoman: Lane in Secretariat.

In The Money

Secretariat

Directed by Randall Wallace

If you didn’t know going in, Secretariat, about the 1973 “superhorse,” is a Disney film. Not quite sports movie, almost a domestic drama, this biography of a champion racing horse is all about the uplift. Secretariat, or Big Red as he’s known to his “family”—owner Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane), trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth)—gives everyone a ride into the winner’s circle, and not just on the track. It’s appropriate that the colt with the dubious lineage—his sire was known for speed, not stamina—is called Big Red through most of the film, because his story was “suggested” by, rather than adapted from, the true-story Secretariat book by William Nack. And though Big Red gets his share of humanizing close-ups (he mugs for the cameras, and apparently, responds to gospel songs), let’s just say that screenwriter wasn’t exactly scripting straight from the horse’s mouth. Then again, because this is a Disney film, everything looks wondrous, from Penny’s upper- middle-class wardrobe to the Virginia horse farm she inherits from her parents, to the racing sequences, especially a withers-level view of horses and jockeys twitching in anticipation in the extremely close quarters of the starting gate.

Penny is a suburban homemaker in Denver when she is recalled to her childhood on a horse farm by the death of her mother. She soon realizes that her father (Scott Glenn) is no longer fit to run the farm, and so she takes the financial reins with the ladylike grit and gumption expected from a Disney-film heroine (though one character refers to her as bitch, no bitchy behavior is in evidence, which is probably why the genteel Lane was cast). Luckily for the farm, a foal is born who evidences future greatness from the get-go, standing up on his spindly legs within seconds of leaving the womb. In all her blandly rendered skirmishes—with the blue-blood boy’s club of Virginia horse breeders to the husband she left behind to mind the children—Penny is supported by the devotion of the farm’s secretary, the appropriately named Miss Ham (Margo Martindale). It isn’t until Red starts running the big races that the film picks up speed, and not just because of the glorious sights of thoroughbreds thundering down the track. There’s the suspense of Red’s ability to survive longer races, the increased role of real-life jockey Thorwarth as the fearless Turcotte (who concludes a contractual negotiation with Penny by informing her, “I risk my life every time I climb on a horse”), and Penny’s rivalry with the loud-mouthed owner of Sham, Secretariat’s greatest challenger.

The film doesn’t shy away from religious overtones (director Randall Wallace rarely does)—Red’s devoted groom Eddie is like Bagger Vance with a bridal instead of a golf bag—and it’s canny about nostalgia. The nostalgia is justified: What’s most appealing about Red’s championship season is that it captures a time when race horses were still viewed as four-legged athletes rather than money-making machines.

—Ann Morrow

 

Lifelike

Jack Goes Boating

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

To call attention to the fact that Jack Goes Boating is actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first effort as a cinema director might suggest one of two opposing things: That, one, I intend to cut him some slack for a well-intentioned but wayward film, or that, two, I’m readying to heap praise upon him for being a surprising natural, a wunderkind. Neither is the case: one, Jack Goes Boating doesn’t need any slack, precisely because, two, Hoffman, no lucky neophyte, knows exactly what he’s doing and executes the material with great grace and surety.

In part, that is likely due to Hoffman’s familiarity with the story. The movie is based on screenwriter Robert Glaudini’s play of the same name, which enjoyed critical acclaim in an off-Broadway run starring, you guessed it, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Also beneficial, no doubt, is Hoffman’s experience as a theatrical director. He’s even taught a course titled Directing the Actor at Columbia University. So, the fact that he gets top-notch performances out of his small cast is less than shocking.

But the artistic success of a movie is never preordained, and Jack Goes Boating is still a notable accomplishment. Hoffman deftly blends theatrical talent with cinematic contrivance in a warm, funny and nuanced movie about the slippery nature of human relationships.

Hoffman plays Jack, a New York City limo driver working for his uncle’s car service. That he also lives in that same uncle’s basement hints at Jack’s directionlessness. Though he has a lukewarm ambition to gain employment with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Jack’s most developed attachments seem to be to reggae music, as evinced by his ever- present Walkman and his attempts to get his blond hair to dread, and to his married friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega).

Clyde, especially, is a devoted friend. The relationship between Jack and Clyde is as heartwarming a depiction of male friendship as I’ve ever seen onscreen. So, when the couple set Jack up with Connie (Amy Ryan), a coworker of Lucy’s, and we get a chance to watch the romantic relationships evolve/devolve in parallel, it’s powerful: Roles reverse subtly, complexities are revealed and viewers are called upon to entertain contradictory opinions about the characters. Quite a bit like life, really.

Which is not to say that it’s uncrafted, unsatisfying or bleak. In both its cinematic and its storytelling technique, Jack Goes Boating is sophisticated, rewarding and, I’ll say again, funny: Funny, Woody Allen less reliant on explicit narration, privileged Upper East Side settings and liberal-arts name dropping, funny. Funny, neurotic, hopeful, poignant, unintentional funny. Quite a bit like life, really.

—John Rodat


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