The reverse pageantry of Owen Kline’s directorial debut Funny Pages is the greatest kind of eyesore: Mildewy abodes, nudie comix, stinkpots, creeps and hermits. In this inverted fairy tale, produced by the Safdie brothers and Frownland’s Ronald Bronstein, teenage cartoonist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) jilts his upper-crust New Jerseyan suburb to drop out of school after the untimely death of his teacher and mentor, Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis).
Katano was a creep, his last breathing moments spent trying to coax Robert into his front seat after stripping nude in a lesson on art modeling and caricature. But his steadfast belief in Robert’s art went with him, sanctifying the art of cartooning in the process. Sojourning in Trenton, Robert “signs”—his stay is off the books—a monthly lease in a truly chilling, tumbledown basement apartment (an ad hoc boiler-room-turned-bunker). Kline adds all the nasty fixings: A landlord with a violent combover, a fish tank sans fish, coffee-colored shower water, toenail scraping and rogue pork rinds, all clouded in thick, clammy heat.
While temping at the district attorney’s office, Robert sharpens his craft by sketching the revolving door of feckless bums that peruse the halls, until one of them turns out to be Wallace (Matthew Maher), a former color separator at Image Comics. Blinded by his sheeny designation as a professional cartoonist, and still grieving the only adult who took him seriously, Robert wants to be mentored by Wallace. So he offers him $300 for a single drawing lesson and an invite to his family’s home for Christmas—not a particularly hard sell to an unemployed man caught in a legal bind for publicly raging at a pharmacist.
Robert’s parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia) are flummoxed by the move, powerless in persuading him to stay home and receive his diploma. Their role is primarily one of aesthetic incongruity with the sort of adults Robert respects—penniless loners with artistic integrity, nothing like the couples who sport candy-striped pajamas and butter chocolate chip pancakes on Christmas morning. It’s fitting, admirable even, for the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates to make a film about a privileged youth pushing his way down into the seedy underbelly of an artistic movement which antagonizes his reality.
Robert has all the makings of a coming-of-age protag—he’s a vicious little curmudgeon, constantly chewing out his parents and undermining his best friend Miles’ (Miles Emanuel) comic strips (“Your linework’s like, really ratty” is perhaps his kindest remark). He reserves all of his decency for the artists he deems worthy. But Zolghadri plays Robert with such modulating disdain and charm that you still root for him on the other end of the screen, not to succeed per se, but to be affirmed by his trampish heroes.
Terry Zwigoff comes to mind as the meter stick for Kline’s budding brand of nu-misanthropy. Funny Pages rubs the same marrow as Crumb, a 1994 Zwigoff documentary which surveys American cartoonist and founding father of the underground comix movement, Robert Crumb—presumably Robert’s psychic namesake, seeing as Kline has seen the film “over a hundred times.” There’s then the comic throughline of Ghost World—adapted from Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel—and the running appraisal of high culture in Art School Confidential which match Funny Pages’ roughed out suburban malaise.
Kline’s references are sprawling, evidenced by his “Mystery Reel” which played at Lincoln Center earlier this month. His listed influences include Heavy Traffic, Lord Love a Duck, Greaser’s Palace , Artists and Models and O Lucky Man!, to name a few. Like Zwigoff, Clowes or Todd Solondz, Kline’s affinity for the ugly—be that people, places, or tchotchkes—is itself an aesthetic distinction, a kind of meta-footnote to A24’s topography of reliably stylish coming of agers.
Funny Pages has all the bells and whistles of a Safdie joint, from the hustler caught in a hellish loop to the frenetic coda set to rest by moments of painful introspection. The elliptic ending will split audiences, but Kline’s commitment to eschewing a redemption arc for Robert only buffs the film’s balance of the grotesque and the mundane, seamlessly reproducing Crumb’s gloomy ethos: “To be human is, for the most part, to hate what I am. When I suddenly realize that I am one of them, I want to scream in horror.”
Director: Owen Kline
Writers: Owen Kline
Stars: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais, Marcia DeBonis
Release Date: August 26, 2022
Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.