Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why does Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY work well?


Why is this movie so special? Because it mimics with amazing veracity of person, place and purpose -- there's plenty of emotional honesty, too -- the experience of being in an mental hospital of the "experimental" variety.  Confession: TrustMovies was a patient in just such a hospital, back in the mid-to-late 1960s. He had his own suicide attempt and was promptly placed in the custody of New York City's Bellevue Hospital (at the time, that was the first stop for would-be suicides). Bellevue was a pretty horrible place in which you were surrounded by people who seemed truly crazy (those jokes about inmates believing they are Jesus, God, Napoleon and whoever else are not made up. That's exactly what it was like). And as crazy as TM realized that he was for attempting to take his own life, he also realized that -- on other levels, at least -- his hospital-mates were even further away from reality.

In any case, thanks to the help of my cousin, the late Charles van Maanen (a well-known commercial photographer here in New York City at the time), after about one week, I was moved to the "towers" of what was then called Roosevelt Hospital (59th St and 9th Avenue), three floors of experimental psychiatric care for non-violent patients (non-violent to others, at least). There, I (and, I believe, many of my co-patients) flourished under the kindness, skill and guidance of a loving, caring staff.  When I was released around ten weeks later, I was functioning again, back at my old job at Lincoln Center, and ready -- maybe a bit haltingly -- to move ahead in life. And so I have. Ever since then I have felt grateful for and lucky to have had that wonderful experience.

I still think about my time at Roosevelt Towers, and have sometimes wondered why I never saw in any film something approaching my experience there. (Most "mental hospital" movies are, shall we say, a tad negative...) Well, now I have seen my own experience captured beautifully. And though it is more than 40 years later, the ambience, characters and situations on view in the wonderful film IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY -- based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini and adapted and directed by Ryan Fleck (shown above, left) and Anna Boden (above, right) -- come closer to my experience those decades ago than anything else I've witnessed.

The "story" here is not much like my own, nor is the main character (played by Keir Gilchrist, right) any kind of stand-in. But so much else is so on-target -- from the amazing variety of types of patients (as well as their disparate ages: on our floor we had males, females, high schoolers, adults, and the elderly, all mixed in) to the doctors and staff, everything rings true. The real and meaningful help that physicians and staff give their patients, as well as the help the patients give each other, combine to make the film one of the most legitimate feel-good movies I can recall.

Which is why, no doubt, it's critical assessment was less than stellar. (We critics want "dark," goddammit!) Yet, with more than 10,000 votes, the film has garnered an impressive IMDB rating of between 7 and 8 stars (out of ten). While the movie did not set the box-office ablaze, it did well enough. But it's the kind of movie that got by most people -- which is a shame. (I had lunch the other day with a mother and daughter who consider themselves avid moviegoers, yet they had trouble even recalling the film.) So I'd like to start the ball rolling for a re-think of It's Kind of a Funny Story.

For the lovely performances alone -- from the actors who play the patients, Mr. Gilchrist, Zack Galifianakis (shown in second photo from top) and Emma Roberts, to hospital staff members (played by Viola Davisat right), Jeremy Davies (above, right) and Aasif Mandvi -- this gem of an ensemble is worth seeing. For its take on the meaning of mental health and the importance of one's view of the world, this one's a keeper. And for those who claim that this particular hospital environment could never exist, I swear to you, it did. I hope it still does, somewhere.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, for sale or rental. Don't let it go by unseen.

4 comments:

GHJ - said...

Beautiful piece, Jim.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Glenn. I realize for some the post probably contains "too much information," but, in this case, that's the point.

Diana said...

James,

Was your cousin, Charles, married to Martha Koerner and did they live in Los Angeles for a time? I am a historian researching politics and the performing arts in LA during the post war period. Your cousin took photographs of some of the subjects I am working with. I would love to talk to you about him some time, if you are willing.

James van Maanen said...

Hi, Diana--
Yes, my cousin Charles was indeed married to a woman named Martha. I have to say that I don't remember her maiden name, however, but undoubtedly Koerner was it. And as I recall, Martha was involved in the performing arts in the Los Angeles area. Why don't you e-mail me at jamesvanmaanen@gmail.com and let's arrange a time to talk!
Best,
--Jim v.