Yes, there are such things as comedies about depression. Sort of light, often romantic, oddly funny, definitely quirky, and probably not for everyone. Perhaps depression has given me a strange sense of humor, but laughing at a deadly serious illness helps me from time to time.
You need to have a pretty good imagination and a lot of nerve to make a light film about depression or any mental illness. The makers of these movies have plenty of those qualities. Each has created a bizarre premise, filled the stories with appealingly weird characters and granted us the defining quality of comedy: a happy ending.
I’m especially drawn to the way they push the inner depression into the outside world. Although they begin by depicting depressed people in ordinary life, they quickly launch them into an imaginative landscape in the afterlife or a fantastic situation among the living.
Here are the five I’ve picked: Ghost Town, Cold Souls, Wristcutters – A Love Story, How to Be, It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
Wristcutters – A Love Story
Wristcutters – A Love Story. At first, I didn’t want to get near a film with an off-putting title like this, but I’m glad I finally did take a look. The story is a combination of quirky fantasy and romantic comedy that’s now one of my favorites. It starts as you might expect. An emotionless young man lets his blood seep into the bathroom sink as he stares into a mirror, then collapses. He wakes up in a very strange world of an almost colorless, barren landscape with a scattering of shabby settlements and camps. It’s populated by bizarre characters who have one thing in common: they’ve all committed suicide.
He’s befriended by a Russian rock musician. He had electrocuted himself with his guitar after getting booed during a performance. The Russian lives with his parents and kid-brother, all of whom followed his example. He drives around in an old car that happens to have a black hole under the dashboard. No one smiles, but otherwise they carry on with their afterlives, finding jobs and hooking up in loose relationships. A young woman appears on the scene, claiming she shouldn’t be there since she died accidentally. She’s looking for whoever is in charge so the mistake can be corrected. And so it goes.
I especially like the way this oddly funny film projects depression onto a gray landscape, yet manages to have a charming and happy ending. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I like finding a film on this subject that is actually fun to watch. It even has a catchy song – Through the Roof ’n Underground by Gogol Bordello.
Paul Giamatti plays depression well. In fact, every lead character I’ve seen him play is pretty depressed, even John Adams. In this film, he plays an actor named Paul Giamatti, who is completely down and unable to act very convincingly. He doesn’t like himself, and decides that his soul is to blame. He wants to have it removed, and in the world of Cold Souls there are companies with the technology to do it.
He soon realizes that he was wrong about his soul. Without it, he becomes more distant and difficult than ever, and so he decides to get it back. However, Giamatti’s soul has been stolen by a Russian black marketeer who has his own soul extraction business in St. Petersburg.
Off to Russia goes Giamatti to retrieve his soul with the help of the sympathetic and repentant woman who had taken it. Through dangerous adventures, he finally gets it back and can begin to come out of his depression.
Like most of these films, this one is a zany trip to recovery, and it’s a nice break from the real work of getting your soul back.
Ricky Gervais brings his edgy hilarity to the portrayal of a thoroughly depressed dentist, named Bertram Pincus.
His life begins to turn around when he has a near death experience during a colonoscopy. As a result of this ordeal, he acquires the ability to see ghosts, who appear to him as perfectly normal people walking past him on the street. They urge him to help them complete unfinished business with the loved ones they’ve behind. That’s the only way they can free their souls from remaining earth-bound. The misanthropic Pincus will have nothing to do with them, but they keep trying to change his mind.
One of them is a slick businessman named Frank (Greg Kinnear), who was run over by a bus while getting an apartment for his mistress. He becomes Pincus’ constant companion and promises to keep the other ghosts away if he will do him a favor.
Frank wants him to win over his widow, Gwen, in order to get her away from a self-important human rights lawyer. This leads to a wonderfully funny romantic interest as Pincus gradually falls in love with her. While trying to deliver a message to her from the ghostly Frank, however, he alienates her and becomes depressed all over again.
He begins to come out of it only after agreeing to help all the ghosts deliver their final messages. Fulfilling this purpose is the most moving part of the film and helps him to take a big step back to humanity. Encouraged about himself, he makes another attempt to win over Gwen. While trying to reach her to make up for past mistakes, however, he is run over by a bus. Before being resuscitated, his ghost has a final talk with Frank who helps him realize that Gwen has finally fallen in love with him. That releases Frank’s soul so that he can head off into the afterlife, and eventually Pincus and Gwen have another chance to get back together.
How to Be
Here’s a portrait of a 20-something Londoner named Art who is completely lost, depressed and generally out of it. Unable to get anywhere with his emotionless parents and dumped by his girlfriend, he wanders about trying to emerge from his “quarter-life crisis.” Dressed in his sloppy clothes, he walks through his life head down, hair covering his eyes and baffled by the weirdness of everyone around him. Art is frustrated as an aspiring musician and finds little help from his two best friends, who encourage him to be anyone but himself.
He does come up with a plan for recovery after getting absorbed in a self-help book. He spends all his money to hire the author to come live in his home and help him turn his life around. This is an elderly Canadian gentleman of absolutely impeccable dress and manners who delivers his calmly assured advice on the fulfilling life at every opportunity.
He pops up from closets, bathroom stalls, bar tables and bedrooms to present his unflappable, smilingly pleasant wisdom as Art is arguing with friends, scuffling in bars, pleading with his ex-girlfriend or trying to get a response from his parents. Art struggles to put the guru’s guidance into practice but winds up making a mess of every situation.
In the end, he gets the best advice from the director of the community program who has had to fire him. He suggests that Art take up what he really wants to do, and the quarter-life crisis veteran finally believes that he can do it. In the last scene, we see him performing one of his songs with his small band before an admiring audience. What I like most about this ending is that he manages to pull recovery out of himself and his own well-disguised wisdom.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Adapted from a novel of the same name, this is the story of depressed sixteen year-old Craig whom we meet as he is about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He pulls back at the last minute and heads for the emergency room. There he hopes to get some medication so he can go home, but as soon as the doctor learns of his suicide attempt, he’s admitted to the psychiatric ward for a mandatory one week evaluation.
Craig has been under pressure from his dad’s career expectations for him and the high-powered high school he’s been attending. All his friends seem to be super-achievers, yet he really wants to be an artist. He dreads having his friends find out where he is and protests to the psychiatrist that he’s not really that depressed and wants to go home. Yet it’s not long before he winds up in bed much of the day like his Egyptian room-mate who hasn’t been out of the room in weeks.
An older patient named Bobby takes him under his wing, shows him how to sneak around the hospital and how to get into the gym for some basketball practice. He also encourages him to be bold in getting to know another patient, Noelle, who has taken an interest in him. There’s an appropriately complicated set of obstacles that keep Noelle and Craig apart for a while, but that ends well.
Bobby is the most interesting character, who appears alternately as a good-humored and wise companion and a deeply depressed patient who has tried to kill himself six times. At the end, both he and Craig have recovered enough to leave the hospital, and Craig and Noelle get together. It’s a heartfelt romantic ending, but the film has also managed to provide along the way a serious portrait of depression in a locked psychiatric ward.
All these films take you outside the reality of depressed life but never lose touch with it. They are comic fantasies that can help you look at yourself from a slightly different angle. It’s nice to be able to laugh about a serious illness and enjoy the happy endings, however dreamy they might be.
Add Silver Lining Playbook!
Thanks for the list! I’ve seen Wrist Cutters and loved it. Cold Souls sounds great, too. Your description for Ghost Town, however, seems to spoil every major plot point, so there doesn’t seem much point in watching it now. Not going to read the other descriptions, but I might take your word on them.
Thanks for sharing. If there is one thing I despise the most about depression is the feeling of constant guilt/stress/pain without any feeling of fun, humor or joy.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Sriram –
Humor is a quick casualty – though there are times when I can laugh at the comedies about depression I recently wrote about. Believe it or not, there is also a laughing therapy – a group of people (has to be a group) start forcing out a mechanical laugh and gradually build until genuine laughing spreads to everyone. It worked for me just watching a video.
Noch Noch | be me. be natural. says
i agree, it’s good to look at depression in a more light hearted way and laugh about it… some amusement would do us good 🙂
I just remembered the mother in About a Boy and Woody Allen in some of his films. I’ve found identification with others, especially with laughter, very powerful and it’s not hard to see how it could, by removing the sense of isolation that comes with depression, actually be lifesaving. I’m chasing up those films you mentioned and saving them for a ‘rainy’ day! Thank you.
John Folk-Williams says
Hi, Ann –
Woody Allen, of course! Depression is his constant theme. The first film he made that he did not appear in (I think it was the first) was Interiors – a deadly serious film about depression. I have to confess that I stopped watching anything of his after his affair with his step daughter. But I should get reacquainted with his work.
Great idea. I’ve found my sense of humour to be very helpful to my depression, not by curing it, but by giving me a healthy perspective on it, seeing it for the distortion of reality, and the limitation on possibility, that it is. It’s especially funny if shared with someone who knows what it’s like. And if you’re not actually depressed at the time.
It’s not exactly about depression, but I like Al Franken’s “Stuart Saves his Family.” Funny but courageous struggles with dysfunction and family, with some really great actors.
Janet Singer says
“All these films take you outside the reality of depressed life but never lose touch with it,” seems like a wonderful way to describe these films. I agree that it is important to laugh, especially about serious subjects, and movies done well can also spark dialogue and raise awareness within the general public about mental illness. Thanks for sharing……I haven’t seen any of these movies yet, but will put them on “my list!”
John Folk-Williams says
Thanks for your comment, Janet – I’d like to know if you have a favorite film list for OCD. The most amazing one I have found is called Dirty, Filthy Love. It’s unusual in being as funny as it is serious in its depiction of the illness. Which films would you recommend?