Sheltered, creative youth tend to romanticize the crappy lives of their artistic heroes. Many of them believe it is necessary to live like them in order to emulate their work. The raw truth, the stuff of art, does not exist in public school hallways and beautifully decorated living rooms. It lives “out there” where the “real people” live, with all their unsexy poverty and well-deserved misery. This myth frames a relatively safe private life as a counterforce. Of course, if rebellion requires having enemies, then for white suburban kids there is no better life than a comfortable middle-class existence and supportive parents.
Such is the epiphany that Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), the aspiring cartoonist at the heart of Owen Kline’s debut film Funny Pages, achieves when his art teacher and mentor, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), is killed in a freak car accident. After being arrested for breaking into his high school to steal Katano’s work back and subsequently turning down legal counsel from a family friend in favor of the services of a public defender, Robert informed his frustrated parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) that he was the would drop out of secondary school. He then moves out of his childhood home in Princeton, New Jersey, buys a cheap car from a comic store owner, rents a seedy basement apartment in Trenton, and takes a job as a data entry officer at the public defender’s office that kept him out of jail.
Eager to live in the “real world,” Robert plunges headlong into the deep end of humanity.
In the public defender’s office, Robert and Wallace (Matthew Maher), a hostile man who used to work as a color separator at Image Comics, cross paths. Desperate for a mentor to replace Katano, Robert clings to Wallace despite all outward signs of instability (he’s eventually accused of assaulting a pharmacist) and his apparently insignificant status in the comics world. Kline – who wrote, directed and directed the film – subverts both the old mentor/young upstart and the “never meet your heroes” formulas by turning the veteran adviser in question into an antagonistic nobody. Wallace has no interest in advising Robert, but Robert puts him in his orbit anyway because he craves guidance and support despite his protestations about living on his own terms.
Kline, a comics fanatic and cartoonist himself, carefully crafts the hermetic world of Funny Pages to resemble an imaginary graphic novel most likely published by Fantagraphics in the ’90s. Each character and setting may have distinct personalities, but they all reflect Kline’s perspective, which privileges oddballs and misfits and alternative culture fetishists over members of “heterosexual” society.
The characters who make their way through the public defender’s office or comic book store in the film are not portrayed as outsiders, although they clearly are. Instead, they’re just the people who organically make up Robert’s little world. Cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny like to film these characters in close-up, often enlarging their facial features to super 16mm, much like an underground comic artist would do in print. If there is sensationalism or explosiveness in photography, it is entirely incidental to the primary goal of bringing normal-looking people to the big screen, a noble gesture that is underappreciated these days.
Produced by Benny and Josh Safdie and their celebrity collaborator Ronald Bronstein (among others), Funny Pages owes a handful of artistic ancestors. There are nuances of Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” in its portrayal of disgruntled youth and niche culture. Maher’s splenic stutter resembles an angrier version of Dore Mann’s character in Bronstein’s outstanding feature film Frownland.
The film’s free-floating aggression feels like a carryover from a series of early films by Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes. (Or the Safdies’ films, in which Kline was partly involved.) Its episodic nature and normalized sense of anarchy and delirium are broadly reminiscent of the works of Robert Downey Sr. Kline tends to filter these stray influences into his own personal aesthetic than simply wearing them on the sleeve. Ideas can be recycled into Funny Pages, but they’ll be turned into something unique.
The Robert character is particularly seen as a specific creation, even though his aspirations and claims have precedents. It’s easy and cheap to caricature a privileged character by blinding them to their own behavior so that an audience can safely feel superior. However, Kline provides Robert with a knowing perspective: he willfully engages in willfully self-destructive, alienating acts even though he knows better, believing it will give him an advantage. His misguided poverty tourism springs from a sincere confrontation with the lives of others, even if it’s still grist for the creative mill. He strikes a layered pose of over-the-head cool, recklessly dashing forward even when common sense dictates a pause.
Of course, Funny Pages doesn’t excuse Robert’s snotty arrogance; In fact, it’s almost too noticeable when Robert’s father (after his son invites Wallace over to his house for Christmas without his permission) sneers at him: “That’s rotten kid shit.” are rooted in a random journey of self-discovery.
Zolghadri’s endearingly lewd performance deserves credit for making every shade of Robert’s character readable. He rarely betrays his character’s confidence or fear, at least until things get particularly haywire. Though the Robert Wallace dynamic occupies much of “Funny Pages,” Kline provides Zolghadri with several actors to rival, including Miles Emmanuel, who plays Robert’s best friend and endless punching bag Miles, and Michael Townsend Wright, who Barry is playing. the eccentric man who rents the basement apartment to Robert.
Both actors go to great lengths not to reduce their characters to their most repulsive qualities. Despite his overzealous clumsiness, Miles charms because of his unwavering faith in himself and Robert; and while Barry certainly exudes something of an unsettling, sloppy vibe, he also has an old-school meek quality that keeps him from coming across as a potential threat.
At the same time, “Funny Pages” doesn’t hide its ever-present sense of menace, Kline just wraps it in comedy. The film’s funniest sequence is when Wallace pressures Robert into pissing off a pharmacist to prove he’s generally erratic – every single aspect of that scene, from Zolghadri’s trepidation to his interactions with a distraught older woman ( Louise Lasser), is comedic, yet its general thrust, ie, an unbalanced stranger forcing a teenager to provoke a stranger, is unsettling on paper.
Likewise, Robert clearly enjoys calling his basement apartment “a shithole,” until a disturbing incident forces him to realize what that actually means. As precocious teenagers move through adult spaces with all their unfiltered wickedness and unsettling details, they tend to realize how much more they still have to do to grow up. The key irony underlying Funny Pages is that Robert never really had to seek inspiration from the underbelly of society: the film opens with two rather traumatic scenes that would have provided him with plenty for years to come.
But as much as Funny Pages is a coming-of-age story, Kline refuses to learn explicit lessons. After a frantically farcical final act, it ends abruptly on a shocked note, in which it is possible to project a number of readings on Robert’s state of mind. It’s unclear if he internalized any of the alarming events he set in motion, or if he plans to continue masochistically taking self-generated licks from the world.
“No one in this room is an artist!” Wallace roars at Robert and Miles in a pivotal scene, and while he means it judgmentally and fatalistically, it also serves as a potential wake-up call to Robert’s self-image. Is art just the act of taking something from the world around you, or is it about imbuing images with your sense of self? Is craftsmanship an end in itself or an expression of the soul? As Funny Pages ends, Robert is only beginning to ask himself these questions.
A24 brings Funny Pages to cinemas on Friday 26th August.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/08/funny-pages-review-owen-kline-1234754239/ Funny Pages Review: Shades of Ghost World Shadow cartoonist comedy