This generation is being lied to. It will take years of deprogramming to undo the damage. After a decade-and-a-half of Marvel films dominating popular culture and a cascade of other IP derived from comics slipping in through the door they’ve bashed open, we’ve gone way beyond the concept of “hip to be square” to create a zeitgeist where being a “nerd” elicits cheers and acceptance. This is a fabrication. (Liking the most popular movie franchise of all time certainly does not qualify in making one nerdy.)
Those of us familiar with true social barnacles—the unwashed, unacceptable, unwelcome losers who grow like mold in comic book shops—know this world has never really been represented on screen. (American Splendor, you pushed the needle, but everyone in that is far too presentable.) Funny Pages is the first film to really look into the dark, howling abyss of the long box.
The first feature from Owen Kline, Funny Pages is not a dramatic masterpiece, but its setting, tone, look, feel, and casting would send real comic book geeks off doing cartwheels—if only we possessed the coordination. Instead, it will have to suffice to sit there, mouths open with the typical drool, thinking “I feel seen.”
Funny Pages understands that being truly committed to comics, the lowest form in all the arts (except for performance poetry, of course), is an express ticket to a life of social misery and alienation. The best you can ever hope for is time shooting the breeze with other misfits in the back of the store, ranting about esoteric subjects that no one with a family or a real job could ever care about. To see the pig without its lipstick like this, especially as Disney+ force-feeds mass culture more watered-down superhero product, is the true marvel.
No one in Funny Pages cares much for superheroes anyway. It’s the hardcore stuff—underground filth like Zap Comix, MAD Magazine, or the strips owned by King Features Syndicate—that inspires their misdirected passion. Most of the references won’t land with common folk outside of Popeye, Dick Tracy, and Scrooge McDuck. Sure, you could call these people “gatekeepers,” but there’s only one problem with that—who in their right mind is trying to get in!?!
Funny Pages is extremely light on plot, but what’s there follows the coming-of-age map. Daniel Zolghadri plays our shrimpy hero Robert, a college senior who should be headed off to art school (he’s an amazing cartoonist). His mentor is an off-beat art teacher at his Princeton, New Jersey (e.g. wealthy) high school, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis). Mr. Katano urges Robert to always be honest, to search for truth, and then, after stubbing out a joint, disrobes so his pupil can get a good look at a distended, rotund stomach, wobbly scrotum, and shriveled male sex organ. (This is at school, by the way; this teacher should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
After a freak accident that isn’t Robert’s fault—but isn’t 100 percent not his fault, either—Mr. Katano dies. Robert decides to quit school, leave home, and move into a repulsive (illegal) apartment shared with two shockingly grotesque older men in Trenton, New Jersey (e.g. poor).
The horrors of that apartment must be seen to be believed, but eventually our young hero ends up meeting Wallace (Matthew Maher), a possible sociopath who once had a marginal job in the comics industry. (He separated colors for Image.) To Robert and his acne-riddled pal Miles, Wallace is a celebrity, and potentially a pathway to a real career in the world of illustration. But to Kline’s tremendous credit, he tells it straight—this man is a disaster, and there is no bonding road trip in this duo’s future. Following your dreams will only bring you heartache. “Not everyone gets to be an artist!” Wallace shouts during the movie’s climax. It is a refreshing smack in the face after 500,000 movies and television shows shoveling b.s. about believing your dreams.
Failure is a topic seldom covered in cinema. Who would ever want to watch it? If we want to look at disgrace, all we have to do is look in the mirror, right? But somehow Owen Kline pulled this off. The 30-year-old director, who you may remember as the younger sibling in The Squid And The Whale (and, it’s worth recognizing, is the to-the-manor-born child of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), has created something extraordinary here in its bleakness and pitch black hilarity. Roll over Todd Solondz, tell Terry Zwigoff the news.
The film is produced by the Safdie Brothers (Kline worked on their shorts as a teen) and the verisimilitude found in their films and Ronald Bronstein’s, another producer seen here, too. Between the casting, the locations, the use of Super 16mm stock, and emphasis on close-ups, my God, you can smell this movie.
Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t really land for me, but complaining about it just feels greedy. This is a movie in which Ron Rifkin, Louise Lasser, Andy Milonakis, and one of the brothers with the crazy hair from Uncut Gems all make brief appearances. I’ll be over with Funny Pages’ equivalent of movie fanatics, rambling about why that’s so fantastic.