VOD film review: Funny Pages
Comic book lore10
Cathy Brennan | On 16, Sep 2022
Director: Owen Kline
Cast: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel, Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Marcia DeBonis
Funny Pages is available in UK cinemas and to rent on Curzon Home Cinema.
Thanks to film and TV, one may be mistaken for thinking that growing up in America is a glamorous affair. On screen, the US presents itself as a place where teenagers speak with the assuredness of twenty-somethings, acne is sanded down to nothing with the mere flick of a digital brush and even the heart-rending topical issues facing adolescent characters can be imbued with a tragic grace. It’s a sickly sweet concoction – and against this backdrop, the unremitting ugliness of Funny Pages is a most welcome sight.
Owen Kline’s debut feature is replete with acne-riddled teens and rapidly balding men drenched in flop sweat. The film opens with 18-year-old cartoonist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) being commanded by his high school art teacher, Mr Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), to draw the older man in the nude. Katano is abruptly killed in a car crash in front of Robert’s eyes after he awkwardly attempts to flee his mentor/groomer. The young artist follows his mentor’s final piece of advice and refuses to apply for college lest it “ruin” him as an artist. Robert’s decision is almost an outright attack on his rich parents, as he rents a room in a basement with two middle-aged creeps and finds office work with a public defender (Marcia DeBonis) at the courthouse.
It is through this job that Robert encounters an unstable man named Wallace (Matthew Maher) who used to work at Image comics in the 90s. Viewers with a familiarity of comic book history will get a lot out of Funny Pages, as Kline’s background in indie comics shines through in the dialogue. When Robert attempts to research Image comics, a knowing nerd remarks that he’ll need a “strong constitution”. The film charts Robert’s escalating obsession with Wallace as he desperately tries to recruit this down-and-outer as a mentor to fill the hole left by Katano.
Sean Price William’s renowned work as a cinematographer ably creates an uncomfortable visual landscape that alternates between chilly exteriors and sweatily oppressive interiors. Kline and Williams’ past collaboration with the Safdie brothers (the brothers are also producers on Funny Pages) inevitably draws comparison with their work such as Good Time. However, the film’s perspective on society’s ignoble failures feels closer to the work of Terry Zwigoff. This is perhaps because Zwigoff worked with well-known names of American indie comics, for example his 1994 documentary on Robert Crumb or his adaptations of Dan Clowes’ work.
The unsettling nature of Robert’s relationship with his teacher becomes a structuring absence that is felt in every facet of the film. He’s a teenager who, despite owning several pornographic comics, seems utterly disinterested in sex, and is instead solely focused on becoming an artist through self-imposed poverty. Maher may have the scene-stealing performance as Wallace, a man who’s always an inch away from a meltdown, but it is Zolghadri’s evasive performance as Robert that lingers on in the mind. Beneath the typical adolescent awkwardness is a psychological complexity that is only hinted at by loose threads in the script. It’s as thinly sketched-out as Robert’s drawing of Kotano’s penis, and just as disconcerting.
Look beyond its greasy facade and you will find that Funny Pages is a film of layers, and one of the best films of the year. It’s ostensibly about the journey of a young artist that ultimately reveals itself to be an unsanitised story about a failure to come to terms.