DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Two misery-filled comedies open this week: "Tamara Drewe" and "It's kind of a Funny Story." The first unfolds at a writers' retreat in the English countryside, the second inside the psych ward of a New York hospital.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Tamara Drewe" is based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which was inspired by Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd." And after a spate of graphic-novel movies that aim inexplicably, strenuously, and self-defeatingly to evoke their source material, it's a relief to find one that puts the spirit of the thing ahead of the form. Director Stephen Frears gets the feel of Simmonds' frames: busy but airy, the characters looking especially precarious against the fixed landscapes.
Gemma Arterton's Tamara Drewe - chatty lifestyle columnist for a London newspaper - is the last character to arrive in this small English backwater, but she's the catalyst, setting everything in madcap motion. She has two key attributes: She's utterly gorgeous, showing up in a pair of short-shorts and riveting the gaze of men and women both. And she knows that her gorgeousness is provisional. She grew up with a near-Cyrano-sized honker she had fixed, and now she can't quite believe her new power.
Because this is Hardy-inspired, there's an unusually large number of perspectives. Tamsin Greig's Beth Hardiment owns this writer's retreat with her husband, bestselling mystery writer Nicholas. She doesn't just cook and clean. She's a kind of muse, giving him ideas and typing his handwritten drafts. But the aging fop cheats on her like mad, which gives hope to the schlubby, radiantly unsuccessful Hardy scholar played by American stage actor Bill Camp. Perhaps, he thinks, Beth could be his muse.
Luke Evans is the dreamy handyman who loves Tamara, Dominic Cooper the rock-star drummer who plays his sticks up and down her body to seduce her. And there are two local high-school girls, Casey and Jody, who sneak into Tamara's house and send a lascivious email in her name that ushers in the apocalypse.
In its unpretentious way, "Tamara Drewe" has the fullness of an 18th-century novel in which fate is inexorable, character equals destiny, and there are casualties. But in place of Hardy's pathos is a perverse little smile that's blessedly contagious.
"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is also set on the border between funny and discomfiting. It opens with its narrator, Craig, played by Keir Gilchrist, having a vision of himself jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Vaguely suicidal, he talks his way into a psychiatric ward. He has a dad, played by Jim Gaffigan, who's not particularly verbal, but whose driving ambition for the boy has reduced him to a wreck. Craig has a best friend with a 4.6 grade point average - how, he asks, is that even possible - and a relationship with the girl Craig adores. More pressing is an unfinished summer-school application that his father believes holds the key to future success.
With all the ingredients for a self-pitying, narcissistic adolescent fantasy, the movie manages to be offhand. As in Ned Vizzini's endearingly nervous novel, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden keep one eye on the protagonist and the other on the patients. One is a girl who cuts herself who's played by the impossibly pretty Emma Roberts, and her immediate rapport with Craig is enough to make most teenage males think about signing themselves into the local hospital. Her character is a stretch.
But the one who dominates the movie is slobby, bearded Zach Galifianakis' Bobby, who first appears to Craig in the emergency room waiting area dressed in a doctor's white coat and scrubs.
(Soundbite of movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story")
Mr. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Actor): (as Bobby) How you doing? You got a cigarette?
Mr. KEIR GILCHRIST (Actor): (as Craig) No. Sorry.
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) What's wrong with you?
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) I just don't smoke.
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) No, I mean why are you in an ER? It's five o'clock on a Sunday morning.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Well, I guess there's just been a lot going on in my mind lately.
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Go ahead.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) OK. Well, this is sort of difficult to explain, but see, there's this girl...
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Yeah. Gotcha.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) ...and this summer school application that I'm really nervous about.
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Summer school.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Yeah. It's like this super-prestigious kind of...
Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Why would you want to be in school in the summer? You should be on Coney Island, bird-dogging chicks.
Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Are you a doctor?
EDELSTEIN: Galifianakis is stunningly good. His Bobby describes himself as on vacation from the world, and this is something of a working vacation for Galifianakis, too. He slows himself down, takes a breather from his manic comedian persona, and allows something melancholy and bitter to emerge. His Bobby understands the pressure Craig is under to perform.
"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is too tidy and often too cute. What saves it is the directors' soft sell. It's not about breakthroughs, epiphanies, one-size-fits-all cures for depression. It's about seeing one's own confusion in a larger context and learning that misery really does love company.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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