Comedies about mental illness have to tread a fine line between keeping it light and making fun of people with genuine problems. The difficulty of course is that mental illness is open to comedic situations in a way that being sick that involves lying very still simply isn’t. But with no personal experience of mental illness it’s hard for me to judge whether the contents of such films are likely to be offensive or not. What I can judge is whether a) it’s funny and b) it works as a film.
On both counts directors Boden and Fleck score hits. The script is a joy, with dozens of chuckles throughout the five day period in which Craig (although why do Americans pronounce that as Creg, like Greg?) is in the ward. Craig likes to draw which also allows the directors a few animated flourishes to enliven the sterile environs in which all the action takes place. There are some other imaginative edits and touches as well as a hilarious fantasy song sequence which you’d have to be dead inside not to enjoy.
Youngster Keir Gilchrist plays his part intelligently and sensitively and shows excellent comic timing but all the big laughs go to The Hangover’s Galifianakis who seems born to play Bobby, the depressive long-time resident. He just has that casual manner that all natural comic actors have and lights up the screen. Emma Roberts is also good as Craig’s love interest Noelle and if anything she’s not in it enough. Still, this is Craig’s story and whether it’s a superficial look at depression or an analysis of whether not being happy for an extended period is actually depression or more a case of struggling to figure out what you want from life, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a positive and consistently amusing tale.
SECOND OPINION | Anne Wollenberg ? This was almost a four-star film. It’s got a zingy script, good performances, a bang-on portrayal of teenage angst caused not by any real hardship or trauma but by having a best mate who seems to sail through life and a dad who “always asks the wrong questions”. Hang on just a second, though. It’s 2010. We supposedly have a much better understanding of mental illness these days, though it’s far from perfect. You’d think we might have progressed to the point where a film set on a psychiatric ward didn’t feel the need to serve up a series of tired comic tropes just to draw sideshow-style entertainment from its patients.
You can sort of forgive this on the grounds that the film wants to be quirky and irreverent, so it’s no good filling the place with people who just shuffle about and hum. And at first, it actually picks up a few brownie points for the way it discusses depression. “Depression is a medical illness,” says Dr. Minerva (Davis), comparing it to diabetes, ie it’s an illness and nothing to be ashamed of. So far, so good.
You can also sort of forgive the number of Americanisms – you’d think the filmmakers would want their movie to make sense to viewers around the world, yet the brainbox students at Craig’s school are defined by scores that will mean little to Brits, who won’t know what is/isn’t a high GPA (grade point average) or what an MCAT is, never mind what constitutes a good score for one. And then there’s the scene where Bobby (Galifianakis) says: “Do you know what the Patriot Act is?” Craig says he does – so there’s no explanation. Would it have killed Boden and Fleck to add a line quickly explaining it?
But I didn’t start knocking stars off until the scene where Nia (Kravitz) visits Craig and asks what’s wrong with one of the patients. He’s schizophrenic, Craig explains. And her response is to laugh and say: “Weird!” So much for the diabetes comparison, then. Pop fact: one in 100 people have schizophrenia. No, that’s not a typo. One in one hundred. There are plenty of statistics on the stigma (high) and the likelihood they’ll be violent (low). Having a character in a film laugh and say, unchallenged, that a schizophrenic is weird is about as sensitive and productive as having them kick people in wheelchairs. Maybe it’s supposed to show us that Nia is a bit of a vacuous twat, but the lack of a responding line speaks volumes.
The rest come off when it swerves away from its original stance on mental illness and suddenly decides to imply that people with depression are being self-indulgent and the way to get them to snap out of it is to make them feel spoilt and ungrateful. This starts when Bobby tells Craig: “I’d give anything to be you for a day,” as if making him appreciate what he has can somehow change the fact he had repeated fantasies about killing himself. And it finishes when Craig tells Dr. Minerva that it’s self-indulgent if he doesn’t get better. Forget years and years of campaigning against the ever-persisting viewpoint that people with depression just need to snap out of it. Forget celebrities like Paul Merton and Stephen Fry speaking out about how mental illness is no more a choice than cancer or a broken leg.
I don’t care if that scene is there to imply that Craig wasn’t really depressed in the first place. The words “self-indulgent” do not belong in a film set on a psychiatric ward. Nor does the implication that someone who is smart and talented has no right to suffer from depression. It’s okay to draw humour from mental illness, of course it is, but laugh with people, not at them. Cut out the scenes I’ve described and this would be a four-star film. But with them, it’s just another ridiculous game of “mock the mental patients” that sets people with very real, very common illnesses up like a circus freak show, and that is not okay.