September 22, 2010 12:10pm EST
On the hit television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager protagonist Amy Juergens has to deal with high school drama boy troubles the needs of her young child and more making her days at Ulysses S. Grant High School far from ideal. In reality the lives of youngsters are even more complicated as all of the above in addition to peer pressure academic competition and the age-old quest to be cool can overwhelm the most focused individual.
Writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) both dramatize and make light of the plight of pubescents in their sweet new film It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel which chronicles a lonesome teen’s brief stay at an adult psychiatric ward it is a very funny story but the filmmakers keep it levelheaded with melancholy supporting characters and a message about the affliction of our society’s medicated youth.
Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara) plays Craig a chronically depressed Brooklyn teen who checks in for treatment after contemplating suicide. An over-achiever caught up in the rat race that is the American Dream Craig’s pessimism and depression stem from neglectful parents more concerned with him gaining acceptance into an elite school than following his passions. His anxiety is aggravated by the dreadful current events of our time notably the wars and financial meltdown that have crippled the aspirations of much of our country’s youth. Though he is a bit over-dramatic Craig’s ailment does raise notable points about paternal priorities and an entire generation of disheartened dreamers.
But surrounded by the hospital’s eccentric group of patients including Emma Roberts’ damaged love interest Noelle and Zach Galifianakis’ emotionally guarded Bobby Craig makes a psychological breakthrough. Gilchrist is like the love child of Justin Long and Jay Baruchel but isn’t nearly as fun to watch as either of those hot-at-the-moment performers save for one Flight of the Conchords moment in the middle of the movie. It’s not that he’s unconvincing; he’s just dull. Luckily Galifianakis steals the show at every turn giving his first ever three-dimensional performance and earning all the attention he’s been getting lately.
Had its story been laid out ordinarily It’s Kind of a Funny Story wouldn’t have been nearly as affecting as it is. But a series of funky flashbacks quirky cut-scenes and animated sequences make the film’s otherwise predictable narrative abstract original and refreshing.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Like hundreds of others in the mad-for-baseball Dominican Republic Miguel Santos (aka Sugar) struggles to try to make it in the local major leagues which would help pull his family out of poverty. His big break comes when U.S. scouts transfer the pitcher to a minor league team in Iowa giving him the opportunity to succeed in America. But when his game goes bad on the mound and an injury occurs he must decide what he really wants to become.
WHO’S IN IT?
Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) spent months scouting teams in the Dominican Republic to find a ball player capable of acting the leading role finally settling on Algenis Perez Soto who had never been in front of a movie camera. He’s authentic and mesmerizing to watch as Sugar — his performance owing a great deal to his own similar background. He nails it and is completely convincing as a pitcher even though he wasn’t initially comfortable on the mound (his own position was really second base). Many of the other roles are also cast with amateur actors adding to the realistic tone of the film.
Boden and Nelson clearly show the love they have for the game but their film is really a striking document of the immigrant’s journey reminiscent in many ways of Elia Kazan’s Oscar nominated America America (1963). We usually only hear about the superstar players but these filmmakers put the emphasis on the great majority that never make it past the minors.
Many scenes are long and drawn out but despite the fact that the film could have used some tighter editing (particularly in the baseball segments) there is still a nice rhythm established.
Due to its desire to be as authentic as possible much of the film is not in English; so those who don’t like to read subtitles might be advised to steer clear.
New York lawyer David Owen (Tim Robbins) is going nuts. The noise of the big city is putting him over the edge especially when it comes to car alarms. His wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) and little girl (Gabrielle Brennan) are not quite sure what to make of his growing obsession with stopping the invasive noise but at first they indulge him. But as David's anger escalates and he begins to vandalize the shrieking cars--and get arrested in the process--he loses both his family and his job. Even that doesn't stop him. He turns into “The Rectifier ” a vigilante noise-abatement specialist who wields a hammer baseball bat and battery-wire cutters smashing cars all over town. And he becomes a city hero too much to the annoyance of the foul-mouthed mayor (William Hurt) and his overeager chief of staff (William Baldwin). David even finds a partner in crime (and in his bed) Ekaterina (Margarita Levieva) a beautiful young woman who offers up a more legal way to accomplish his goal of silencing the screeching autos. Robbins gives a completely believable performance as David a man at the end of his Noise rope. With his sad-sack face and towering body Robbins is the perfect picture of a New Yorker whose life has somehow spiraled out of his control. The only part of the scenario that is hard to believe is his ability to get gorgeous women to sleep with him; his central relationship with his wife (the as-always emotionless Bridget Moynahan who has a film career based solely on her beauty) is completely unbelievable and jars with the rest of the movie. More real is David’s slightly twisted relationship with Russian beauty Margarita Levieva as Ekaterina--at least it is conceivable that she is fascinated with his larger-than-life vigilante persona. Plus Levieva gives a lively fun performance that elevates every scene she is in. William Hurt and William Baldwin do a sort of Laurel and Hardy routine as the silly mayor and his right-hand man which is interesting to watch but sadly not very funny. And what is up with Hurt's dyed red hair? That's just weird. Noise’s writer/director Henry Bean uses a variety of film techniques including split screens time-shifting--even superimposing the text of a Hegel philosophical tract on the screen--creating visual interest in what is otherwise an often static story. But while the basic plot revolving around one man's obsession with ridding the city of noise is an interesting one the journey of the film is a slowly paced and talky slog. It isn't a good sign when one of the best moments of the whole movie comes as the credits roll as Bean's protagonist gleefully smashes the crap out of two cars with a baseball bat. Otherwise the movie is mostly about conversation as characters discuss ad nauseam the affect that noise has on humanity's collective psyche. The result is a film that fails to ignite our imagination or hold our interest.