The cinematic equivalent of a dark, morbidly hilarious graphic novel, Funny Pages, which premieres in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, marks a fresh and uncompromising feature debut for The Squid and the Whale star turned director Owen Kline.
Produced by A24 and the Safdie brothers, this New Jersey-set coming-of-age comedy very much bears the mark of the latter’s grungy, bitterly funny films, with a cast of freakish side characters and unforgettable faces that you rarely see on the big screen. But it also channels the work of artists like Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge, chronicling the real-life foibles of a young wannabe cartoonist who’s much better at caricaturing the world around him than at getting his own life together.
The Bottom Line
There’s very much a late ’90s or early aughts pre-digital vibe to Funny Pages, which was shot on 16mm by Safdie regular Sean Price Williams (credited with cinematography along with Hunter Zimny), and which recalls other graphic novel-inspired or adapted films like Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb and Art School Confidential, as well as the Paul Giamatti starrer American Splendor.
Even more so, the antics of its 17-year-old antihero, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri, Eighth Grade), who quits his comfy suburban lodgings to try and make it as a starving cartoonist in the bowels of Trenton, N.J., are reminiscent of French bande dessinée artist and occasional director Riad Sattouf’s hilariously dark Les beaux gosses, which was a hit in Cannes back in 2009. This low-budget, very indie effort should find some love on the Croisette as well, and hopefully won’t be Kline’s last attempt at the helm.
The humor here is more pitch-black than the Sattouf film, featuring an array of oddballs, freaks and geeks whom Robert crosses during his agonizing quest to become a successful comic book artist. The first one we meet is Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), his high school art teacher and mentor, in a long sequence where the latter winds up posing as a nude model to prove a point about life drawing. The incident creeps Robert out a little, and when Mr. Katano tries to catch up with him afterwards to apologize and offer him a ride home, he’s killed in a car accident.
If you don’t laugh while watching these opening scenes, then the morose humor of Funny Pages probably isn’t for you. If you do, then there’s much more to relish as Robert decides to quit school and strike out on his own, moving into a crammed, boiling hot basement in Trenton, where his landlord, Barry (Michael Townsend Wright), sits all day sweating inside an apartment that has never received direct sunlight.
Like Crumb or Clowes, Kline has a keen eye for such characters and details, and his movie is filled with moments that are distinctive in their crudeness — moments that Robert depicts in his own cartoons, giving the whole thing a rather meta feel: Funny Pages is, in essence, an underground comic book film about an underground comic book artist who lives life on the margins, then captures it vividly in pencil and ink.
Robert’s talents land him a job working for a public defender (Marcia Debonis), where he crosses paths with Wallace (Matthew Maher), a completely off-kilter, former colorist (or color separator, to be exact) who’s been accused of attacking a pharmacist. Wallace is the kind of guy who’d make you cross over to the opposite sidewalk if he were approaching, and yet because he once worked for the coveted Image Comics — fans will know this as the breakout label founded by stars like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefield — Robert tries to make him his next mentor, begging for private drawing lessons and putting up with his sheer insanity.
Kline milks their relationship for more crude laughs, especially in a scene where Wallace convinces his protégé to visit the pharmacy where he committed assault. You wonder why Robert, who seems so resourceful and shrewd, would put up with any of this, and the answer comes when he returns back home and we see how distant he is from his own mom (Maria Dizzia) and dad (Josh Pais), as well as from a childhood friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), who wants to draw comics as well. Robert is clearly spoiled, but he’s also in desperate need of a figurehead. At its heart, Funny Pages is less about the young cartoonist’s evolution — when we meet Robert, his talents already seem fully formed — than about his search for someone to guide him through life.
These sentiments are funneled through a story that has the loose feel of many a U.S. indie — Safdie collaborator Ronald Bronstein’s cult film Frownland seems like another influence — and yet Kline’s raw brand of humor sets him apart from others. Clocking in at 85 minutes, his film is short and bittersweet, with jokes that reveal a side of humanity, and central New Jersey, that can make us both laugh and cringe. Like Robert, Kline has a true gift for portraiture, and it’s what makes this sad and scrappy portrait of the artist as a young cartoonist feel new and yet strangely familiar.