Wait, don’t turn the page! This isn’t your run-of-the-mill comic-book movie.
Featured as part of the Dave Barber Cinematheque’s Staff Picks series, Funny Pages is the directorial debut of Owen Kline, the latest progeny of Hollywood royalty (Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) to be given the reigns of an independent production. Futile discussion of nepotism and meritocracy aside, Kline delivers a beleaguered, world-weary picture that betrays his age. I’m sure his parents are proud.
Funny Pages stars Daniel Zolghadri as 18-year-old Robert Bleichner, a petulant aspiring underground comix artist with no shortage of talent but pretensions beyond anyone’s scope of abilities.
After a strange encounter with a beloved art teacher ends in tragedy, Robert decides to strike out on his own, forgoing his final semester of high school for abject squalor in a boiler room “apartment” in Trenton, N.J. Along the way, he shares screen space with a motley assortment of cartoonish characters, like copycat lackey Miles (Miles Emanuel) and unstable former artist/reluctant mentor Wallace (Matthew Maher).
The dark swerve that begins the story, like a gruesome splash page in a horror comic, is a shocking and effective way to establish the film’s off-kilter mode of blackas-soot comedy. I suppose this is technically coming-of-age, as it’s often billed, but expect growth and self-discovery more akin to The Graduate than, say, The Breakfast Club (read: not much).
It’s unapologetically vulgar, goading viewers into reacting and daring its indelibly churlish imagery to linger beyond its 86-minute runtime. The grotesque nature seems to be an ode to the underground comix scene that produced such holy texts as the “Tijuana bibles” (just look it up, Safe-Search off) and the bibliography of the venerable Robert Crumb.
“This is ... disturbing,” Wallace remarks as he peruses Robert’s portfolio, erect nipples and bone splinters seemingly protruding from the page. Special kudos to casting director Adam Caldwell for the extras and eccentrics populating the picture who would fit neatly between the pages of such aforementioned works.
To its credit, it’s not nihilistic as a means of rebellion. It’s just genuinely funny gallows humour. The breezy pacing coupled with a delightfully whimsical score undercuts just enough of the cynicism to let audiences laugh along.
It’s reminiscent of recent Cinematheque offering I Like Movies, especially in its know-nothing, know-it-all, vitamin D-deficient protagonist. Except Funny Pages is totally uninterested in cloying attempts at nostalgia and half-baked moral resolution. Robert’s circumstances are too pathetic for sympathy, leaving ridicule the easiest way to engage with the movie.
It plays like a counterpoint to the paeans and “love letters” to Hollywood that have abounded since that industry gained consciousness. The comix scene is faithfully depicted here: grimy, miserable and hopelessly insular.
Those well-versed in the sequential arts will get a kick out of the comic-store banter, though. Where else will viewers see characters debate the artistic merit of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics with such fervor?
The movie ends on a note that’s simultaneously explosive and a bummer. It’s the kind of deft balance that’s harder than it looks to balance. I found myself wishing for the continuing adventures of these maladjusted figures. They almost make New Jersey look interesting. At least they have comic books.
Published in Volume 78, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 16, 2023)