Nutty buddies: Gilchrist and Galifianakis
in It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
In a Psych Ward
Kind of a Funny Story
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 They’ve been replaced by college-track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
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.
Let Me Go
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
Comes a horsewoman: Lane in Secretariat.
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
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
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.
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
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.