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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF Dispatch Day Five: It’s Kind of a Funny Film Festival Story …

So tonight I want to talk a little bit about something interesting that’s happening at the fest around the film It’s Kind of a Funny Story, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

I was catching up with indieWIRE’s Day Four Hot Topic, where film critics drop in the Film Lounge to chat about What’s Hot and What’s Not at the fest (I will be chatting there myself on Wednesday). This episode included LA Weekly’s Karina Longworth and indieWIRE folks Anne Thompson, Eugene Hernandez and Eric Kohn, and one of the films that got a mention as “losing” at the fest was It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

They didn’t go a lot into why that particular film would be labeled a “loser,” but in short it’s because the studio, Focus Features, reportedly had high hopes for the film here at TIFF, and its response at the Press and Industry screening was, shall we say, not great. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the negative reviews I’ve seen of the film are terribly unfair, but the overall response from the critical set here I would have to characterize as generally negative.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because this film for me is a really interesting study in how different audiences will respond to a film in different ways. If it’s true that the audiences at the public screenings here tend to be very generous in their response to a film, especially when they know the cast and directors are there in the audience, it’s also true that the audiences at the P&I screenings can sometimes be guilty of being very harsh.

As I wrote in my review, I saw It’s Kind of a Funny Story twice here, because I wanted to carefully consider my initial response to the film at its P&I screening, and perhaps re-evaluate it. When I came out of the P&I screening, my initial visceral reaction when the publicist asked what I thought was to go off on a negative rant about it. To be honest, I was kind of a bitch about it.

I love the work Boden and Fleck have done previously with Half Nelson and Sugar, and my immediate response to It’s Kind of a Funny Story was that it was a misstep for them to try to direct a dark comedy, and that I wished they’d stuck with more “serious” films.

But something nagged at me about it, and I kept thinking about the film and why I responded the way I did at that screening. I was engaged in the film at the beginning, it was funny, I liked the performances by both Zack Galifianakis and Keir Gilchrist. I laughed, quite a lot, and for the first part of the film I gauged the temperature of the P&I crowd’s response as mostly positive.

And then, as they say, the deluge.

One person walked out, then another, then another, and then a veritable flood ensued. I was so distracted by keeping track of the walkouts that it pulled me out of the film. Over 70 walkouts in a 557 seat theater is not all that unusual, but what I find both intellectually interesting, and sad for the filmmakers and the studio, is what happened to the temperature of that room once the walkouts started.

All of a sudden, the mood palpably shifted. It was a lot like being in high school and watching as some kid went from being accepted, cool and popular to being shunned and bullied by his peers, and it happened — I swear — THAT fast. When it got to the part where the main character, Craig, goes into a fantasy sequence in his head with all the mental patients performing “Under Pressure” while dressed in ’80s glam rock, people were yelling out and groaning.

It was awful … not just the scene itself (though to be honest, I wasn’t crazy about it either) but the response was just … vicious. It was like watching the cool kids beat the shit out of some poor kid in a locker room, standing there seeing him get punched and kicked and having his head flushed down the toilet, and it just went quickly downhill from there.

It was, and I am not exaggerating when I say this, painful to watch the way just about everyone in that room turned against that film in one swiftly moving, massive herd that I knew was going to take that film down.

It bothered me enough that I had to seriously consider later that night whether my own shift in feelings toward the film had been unduly influenced by the group response in that screening room. I don’t consider myself to be a sheep of a thinker, blindly following my peers wherever they go; my colleagues can attest that I will argue my case for or against a film with passion when I am so moved. But I am also human, and as such I know that I am as psychologically vulnerable as the next person to being influenced by peer pressure.


Cut to the next night, at the film’s public premiere screening at the Ryerson. Packed house. Cast and filmmakers on hand, all gussied up and excited. Completely different audience reaction than the previous night. Had I not been at that P&I screening the night before, I would have had to gauge the response to It’s Kind of a Funny Story here at TIFF as overwhelmingly positive.

There was laughter throughout, never of a derisive nature. I waited with bated breath for the “Under Pressure” scene; the crowd ate it up and even applauded loudly at the end of the scene. I didn’t see anyone walk out, and applause at the end was more than enthusiastic. As for myself, I’d already seen the film and knew the plot points, so I focused more on Boden and Fleck’s directorial choices, the cinematography, the characters, the nuances of the acting. My response to the film on the second viewing was much, much more positive.

Can I say with certainty that I wasn’t once again being influenced by the vibe in the room? No, I can’t. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in looking at this film and how I felt about it, and I just don’t know that there’s any way for me to say that my take on the film at this point is anything but purely subjective. Then again, all criticism is and must be subjective, unless you’re an Objectivist, I guess, and then you’d have to argue that the film qua film is this or that; A is A, good is good, bad is bad, right?

Bottom line: I’m not so sure you can say in fairness that It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a “loser” at TIFF. Critically maligned? Yes. But also, if we’re being fair, well received by the non-critic audience. And if “liked by the audience it’s made for” is part of the story for Tyler Perry films or Twilight films or Transformers films, shouldn’t it also be a part of the story when we’re glibly spinning a film as a “winner” or “loser” at a fest like TIFF, where the momentum a film gets or doesn’t could have a very real potential impact on it?

You think it doesn’t matter? Slumdog Millionaire and Juno and lots of other films have popped here and went on to Oscars and big office; there is a reason studios premiere films at Toronto. The drubbing this film is taking here could very realistically and seriously hurt the film, the studio, the filmmakers … a lot of people. And for what? So people can one-up each other being pithy and clever in slamming the hell out of it? I mean, I’m not saying don’t be honest with your opinion, every film at a fest is not going to be loved, but geez, follow Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick. Save that degree of vitriol for some crappy action film a studio blows $200 million making.

Today I was hearing buzzing from multiple sources that the studio and publicists were upset about critical response to the film, and critics in turn were upset that people were getting mad at them simply because they wrote what they felt was their honest opinion about the film. So look. It is the job we as critics are here to do, to write about these films as we see them as honestly and succinctly as we possibly can.

And it’s true that we cannot and should not be worrying about framing our reviews to please a publicist or a studio, even though everyone here knows that this is a very small and insular world in which we all share the same sandbox, and there are friendships and relationships that cross the borders between critics and publicists, studio folks, and fest programmers. It is the nature of the job, and it is also human nature to not want to piss your friends off, right? But still, we have an obligation as writers to do our best to put those relationships aside when we critique, to be honest and forthright … but we also have a responsibility, I think, to be fair.

We should try to be aware of when our own level of loving or hating a film might be swayed by the mood of the crowd. To be less solipsistic in our thinking, to have some degree of awareness that, at the end of the day, an opinion, whether you are paid for it or not, is just your opinion, and just because you hate a film doesn’t mean that other people, maybe a lot of other people, might see something in it you didn’t — and that doesn’t make YOU right and THEM stupid. To maybe be a little less arrogant about our right to be assholes.

None of this is to say that I think that any particular negative reviews of It’s Kind of a Funny Story are dishonest reviews. I believe they reflect, accurately, what the writers felt about the film when they sat down to write about it, and there’s honestly just not enough time for us to see every film we hate twice to give it a second chance. We’re all working long days here, most of us seeing four or five films a day and then writing about them, too.

We get tired. We don’t have time to eat a real meal all day and sometimes into the night. We get grumpy and jaded and cynical, and all those things people generally tend to think when they think about a person who is a “critic” for a living. It even SOUNDS like a grumpy job title.

I saw It’s Kind of a Funny Story twice because when I looked objectively at my own subjective response to the film, I had to say honestly that I didn’t know how much of my opinion was truly my own and how much was reaction to the groupthink mentality that can set in when a film at a fest is either really loved or really disliked. So I gave it a second shot, as a bit of an exercise in trying to figure that out.

There are still things about the film that I thought were problematic, but I liked the film better overall for seeing it again. I still prefer Boden and Fleck working on more serious, artsy films because I think they are better filmmakers working that way. And they are both smart enough, I think, that if they look objectively at their own film they know what the problems with it are. No director is going to say on the record: Yeah, I’m not actually completely happy with the way this or that came out — but they do think it, and talk about it off the record, all the time.

This whole thing has served to make me more aware of my own response to films, and has made me feel the need to be both more discretionary and more cautious in carefully examining my own emotional reaction to films that I’m seeing here, both good and bad.

Oh, and for the record? Variety’s Justin Chang gave It’s Kind of a Funny Story a very positive review, but oddly enough, I haven’t heard anyone mention that.

Now, back to the movies.

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One Response to “TIFF Dispatch Day Five: It’s Kind of a Funny Film Festival Story …”

  1. Franci Calderon says:

    Simple.Of course we can be influence by the masses but if you place yourself in the joy of watching art been done and if you know the beauty of been amuse then there you have!, probably not the best of movies, at all! but the best of moments. By the way, “Under Pressure” is the movie moment

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon