At one point in Funny Pages, a calculatedly crude portrayal of the comic book artist as a young man, I stopped counting how many of his characters I had imagined falling off a cliff.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. Mildly likable characters are so taken for granted in so many films, especially American films, that meeting a few downright repulsive ones can be a pick-me-up. And really, a fatal fall would hardly be the nastiest punch line in a film that constantly rebounds on Wile E. Coyote’s slapstick violence.
In the opening scene, an after-school art class goes comically wrong and student Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) flees into the night while his doting teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis) meets an untimely end.
There seems to be no good in encouraging the youth. Robert, a gifted teenage cartoonist, is hit hard by the death of his mentor, hastening his departure from the cozy suburb of Princeton, NJ and sending him down a rabbit hole of nerd-tacular intrigue.
For years he has worshiped at the altar of great American cartoonists and dreamed of joining them. He spends most of his time at the year-round acne convention, which is his local vintage comic book shop, eschewing the superhero fandom that’s considered mainstream geekery these days in favor of purer, more artisan fanaticism.
To that end, he also produces his own artfully crude drawings, some inspired by the absurdity of his own life and others mimicking the pen-and-ink pornography of old-school “Tijuana Bibles” with their horny stories and exaggerated genitalia .
A sensational debut for 30-year-old writer-director Owen Kline, Funny Pages draws its quirky energy from the heyday of underground comics in the 1970s and also from the rough-hewn independent films that proliferated during that era . While Robert’s work is overshadowed by the lopsided worldview of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar, the ghosts of John Cassavetes and Jerry Schatzberg sometimes haunt this film’s lackluster faces and seedy locales, as well as Hunter’s inelegant super 16mm frames Zimny’s cinematography.
At the same time, Kline’s sensibility feels equally informed by newer currents in top American cinema, namely the jagged gutter odysseys of Josh and Benny Safdie (“Good Time”) and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”), all three credited here as producers.
In other words, Funny Pages isn’t about soliciting anyone’s affection or fulfilling any expectations other than its own. The same could be said of Robert, who dismisses the warnings of his upper-middle-class parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais, sympathetic wholeheartedly), drops out of high school, buys a rickety car, and follows his artistic impulses wherever they may be like to lead.
They soon lead him to Trenton, where he moves into a disgustingly airless, run-down basement apartment occupied by a couple of creeps (Michael Townsend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr.), resulting in lots of stomach-twisting close-ups of sweaty brows and dirty toenails. The grotesque isn’t just exaggerated, it’s practically in your face.
While Kline’s filmmaking seems to carry his ghastly realism on the sleeve, his plot has a waddling, anything-goes playfulness. The story takes its most ingenious turn when Robert lands a part-time job at a public defender’s office. There he meets Wallace (a terrifying Matthew Maher), a bitter whiner with a violent streak and, it turns out, a long-ago career as a color separator for the famous Image Comics. Could this guy be the mentor to replace Robert’s beloved teacher and lead him to his dream career? It only takes one look at Wallace’s misanthropic gaze to know the answer.
But Robert is too blinded by his ambition to care. While attempting to ingratiate himself with Wallace, he sets in motion a series of tense, absurdist shenanigans involving a pharmacy (note the great Louise Lasser) and, less convincingly, a hell of a Christmas morning at home that somehow doesn’t work ends with Robert being taken to military school. But then again, he’s used to resting on both charm and talent.
Played by Zolghadri (“Eighth Grade”), he exudes more charisma and social shrewdness than some of his comic-loving brothers, most notably his sweetly awkward best friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), whom he relentlessly teases for his clumsy drawing style.
“You have to be harder on yourself,” Robert tells Miles, which is undoubtedly good advice for an artist, if a sign that he’s allowed his drive to eclipse his decency. Or it could simply be that Robert has always been a brat with a monumental title, someone who is now temporarily untying the knot of his pampered upbringing to descend into someone else’s deeper depths for creative inspiration.
They suspect that Kline knows firsthand what he’s trying to impale, and not just because of his own experience as a cartoonist. He is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and acted in a number of films as a child, most notably Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.
In Funny Pages, a scathing comedy about artistic endeavor and failure, he seems to be working overtime to take away even the slightest patina of optimism or seriousness from Robert’s journey. He wants to evoke your laughter and horror at the sheer futility of his quest.
Mission accomplished I think. But “Funny Pages” itself at times feels like an exercise in misplaced artistry, a student’s overly precocious stab at brutal cynicism. His biggest laughs, coupled with his meanest shakes, seem to stem less from any discernible emotional or situational reality than from a filmmaker’s desire to shock and humiliate his characters, to repeatedly tease them.
Perhaps that recklessness, evoking that somber Crumb sensibility, means portraying a vision of the world from the biased perspective of Robert’s justifiably history-making idols. But you can believe in Robert – at least in his talent – without believing the weird, ugly story he finds himself in.
Valuation: R, for gross sexual content, graphic nudity, speech, and brief violent images
Duration: 1 hour, 26 minutes
To play: Begins August 26th at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-25/funny-pages-review-owen-kline-a24 ‘Funny Pages’ review: A blistering portrait of a teen cartoonist