October 30th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *It’s Kind of a Funny Story* and *Frownland*

I saw It’s Kind of a Funny Story because it looked like the kind of zany, not-very-bright Hollywood comedy that I usually like in spite of myself, and it is–but this one uses as it’s backdrop not high-school back-stabbing or the single-girl blues, but a psychiatric ward at a big-city hospital. Despite some fun gags and the presence of the genuinely talented Zach Galifianakis, I just couldn’t stop thinking that this movie is so blithely politically incorrect, so completely irresponsible in it’s treatment of real problems, that I could not feel good about laughing (and I did totally laugh).

But maybe I’m a bit too PC (it’s been suggested) because this movie’s been getting fairly good reviews, many of which seem unconcerned with this depiction of a smart, priviledged white teenager feeling stressed about school and girls, checking himself to Brooklyn hospital because no one seems properly impressed with his problems. I exaggerate–Craig the protagonist is genuinely worried about his suicidal dreams, but I don’t know why the admitting physician in a Brooklyn emergency room would credit this. And I’m sorry, I know I’m lame about these logistical details, but hospital admission for an entire week in the US costs a fortune–where was this boy’s health insurance paperwork?? Did he just happen to have it on him?

The details that bug me about his life inside the hospital are more serious–there is a clearly two-tiered system of mental illness in the screenwriters’ minds. There are attractive, fun, nice people like Craig and the girl he falls in love with, Noelle, who maybe have a few problems and feel blue once in a while. Noelle self-harms, to the point of having long claw-marks down her her face, but we never learn anything about her background or problems and her performance is typical pretty-girl high school, and could be taking place at a beach instead of psychiatric hospital. By the end of the film she’s “better” and being released, apparently on charm alone.

On the other hand, the rest of the patients in the ward are the lower tier–not attractive and almost impossible to interact with, tagged by amusing tales of drug overdose and paranoid delusions, unlikely to get any better. So what is the point of them? Well, the attractive people can *learn* from them, you see–and realize they are lucky. So useful, those unattractive crazy people!

Zach Galifianakis does the only interesting acting in the film, poised as his character is between the two categories–he’s funny and likeable and loves to interact with Craig (bonus points for loving the protagonist) but he has real problems and has made genuine (we hear) attempts at suicide. We don’t really learn too much about his actual life, but Galifianakis is enough of an actor to let a history of hardship show in his face and voice. He is the only character in the entire hospital ward who appears to actually be suffering.

I probably wouldn’t have judged this film quite so harshly if I hadn’t seen it in such close proximity to a vastly different work that deals with the same themes, Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland. I tried to watch this meandering nightmare of a film the night before the other one. Having read various reviews that compared the movie to an unceasing panic attack, I had fortified myself with a supportive viewing companion and delicious snacks to get through it.

This was exactly the wrong way to go about it–in a warm happy environment, protagonist Keith’s struggle to exist is so insane and depressing and alien that the film was utterly unwatchable. In the first 20 minutes, he is disturbed from watching a monster movie by the sound of the door buzzer. When he answers, the only sound on the speaker is hysterical sobbing. He says “I’ll be right down.” Downstairs, he sits in a car, watching this woman sob more. Then they drive around for a while, her at the wheel, tears mainly under control. Meanwhile, Keith is twitching and squirming violently, trying to work up to saying something. It emerges he has a bad stammer–it takes him perhaps 120 seconds to make it clear that when he was a child, he never cried much. When he finally gets it out, she parks the car and goes into a store.

Waiting for her, Keith holds his eyes open and emits a groaning noise–eventually, it’s clear he’s trying to imitate tears. When the woman returns to the car, he shows her his wet, red eyes and she, incredulous, begins to sob all over again. There have only been two lines of dialogue so far.

We turned it off after not too much longer, but the night after *It’s Kind of a Funny Story,* I was ready to try again. This time, I did it right–alone, in the dark, in the fetal position on my couch, with nothing to distract or comfort me. The DVD has no chapters, so I had to essentially start back at the beginning (my fast forward doesn’t seem to work too well) and live through the whole 106 minutes of Keith’s tragic madness–mad tragedy?

At least there is more narrative and dialogue after that first sequence–we learn that Keith sells coupon booklets door-to-door in ritzy suburbs where homeowners’ associations are always trying to chase him and his colleagues away. For a while it seems that Keith simply lives alone in a kitchen (the oven door opens to make a bedside table) but it emerges that there is another actual room in the apartment, inhabited by his viciously mean roommate, who humiliates him at every opportunity.

But the roommate’s anti-Keith diatribes are a little funny, or at least resonant, because Keith is utterly repellant. The struggle for speech is so intense that he is constantly grimacing and grunting and repeating himself. But he demands attention–he feels entitled to it, and he won’t shut up even when he can’t really speak. His boss–who drives the coupon team around in an industrial van–is about as mean as the roommate, but Keith persists in trying to apologize to him for some unknown offense, despite the boss’s complete lack of interest and then aggressive contempt. Over and over, Keith says, “I’m sorry, you’re totally right,” to no particular end. When a woman refuses to buy his coupons, he tells her how his father died. I lost a lot of the content in the garblings of Keith’s speech, but the content was not the point anyway–he just wanted to be heard.

To me, the saddest scenes are with Sandy, Keith’s one “friend.” It’s not really clear how true a term that is for their relationship, but before the movie starts, they had spend an evening at Sandy’s pleasant quiet apartment, talking. Keith leaves a dozen messages thanking him for that, which Sandy does not answer until Keith calls at 3 am, insisting he left his work badge there. Sandy says he would have seen it, but Keith asks him to look in a series of unlikely places, until Sandy finds it under a book–clearly Keith has hidden it there for the excuse to return, like a woman dropping an earring in a man’s apartment.

Keith’s interest in Sandy is not sexual; he just wants to be near another human being who doesn’t hate him (he falls asleep soon after he arrives). But Keith is so far out from social norms, so weird and needy and constantly desperate, that he is extremely hate-able. The only calm, coherent conversation in the entire film is with his psychiatrist, and even that only barely. What’s interesting about that dialogue is that it’s completely irrelevant to Keith’s problems–earning a living, keeping his apartment, protecting himself from violence. To ignore all this and talk about a strange (and funny) incident from his childhood seems a strong joke against modern psychiatry, especially in the warm’n’fuzzy cure-all version of films like *Funny Story.* But then again, take note: Keith is having the time of his life on that couch. He has an unencumbered audience, and that’s all he really wants.

In the end, the job, the apartment, and the relationship with the woman from the beginning of the film–who turns out to be a high school student–all fall apart, and even the borderline functionality Keith had been maintaining crumbles. He turns to Sandy, but so great is Keith’s hysteria and his grief that it feels he has turned *on* Sandy–shrieking into the apartment intercom that if Sandy doesn’t let him in he will kick and scream at his door doesn’t feel much like friendship, but Keith is beyond all reason. As it must, this search for comfort eventually turns stupidly violent.

I never did figure out what was wrong with Keith–another reason the scene on the psychiatrist couch was farcical. Aside from the crippling speech impediment, it seemed almost as though he suffered from a disease of metaphor–he kept trying to explain his problems using a code of images no one could crack. His last interaction with Sandy featured a repeated shouted story–fractured beyond my comprehension–about an old woman with black teeth. Having watched the earlier scenes, I knew this must have something to do with Keith’s violent evil roommate, but Sandy hadn’t been watching the movie and didn’t know even that–it just sounded like mad ranting.

Films like *Funny Story* want to draw a firm thick line in the sand between the real crazies and the film-ticket-buying public. *Frownland*, though it’s protagonist is terrifyingly weird, never draws that line. I loathed Keith, but sometimes, when I could understand him, I knew exactly what he meant. That is *Frownland*’s genius and it’s horror–that it gets the viewer (well, this viewer) to empathize with Keith’s loneliness and his desire to explain himself in complicated metaphors, to somehow get the details of his soul known by another human. The scary thing about Keith is not that he is so alien, but that he is so relateable. It made me feel that that line between sane and insane wasn’t thick or clear at all.

After watching *Funny Story*, I went out for dinner and joked around with my brother; after watching *Frownland*, I lay in bed sweating and stiff as a board and thought about how lucky I am to have people in my life who care about me, as well as (most of the time) a reasonable articulateness. Watching *Frownland* was a ghastly experience that I can’t really recommend to anyone, but it is a work of emotional art and I will never forget it.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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