'Funny Pages' review: Dark comedy more polarizing than engaging
Courtesy of A24
With its darkly comic portrait about privilege from the perspective of a teenager who aspires to become a cartoonist, Owen Kline’s assured though irksome directorial debut “Funny Pages” is more polarizing than engaging. The film, produced by the Safdie Brothers, has an absurd sense of humor which requires a sizable suspension of disbelief about a scruffy, New Jersey suburbanite on his own journey of self-discovery. Kline, son to Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cats, shows real grit behind the camera, capturing a hazy, low-fi view of the protagonist’s livelihood, though one can’t help but feel there’s something missing in the film’s latter half.
Kline has shown up in various projects over the years, his most notable being “The Squid and the Whale,” and he tries exploring all the safeguards granted to him (thanks to mom and dad) throughout “Funny Pages.” The story begins, rather oddly, with our main character Robert (an earnest Daniel Zolghadri) drawing his teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgi, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright), naked, before said teacher later chases him down and dies in a horrible car accident. It’s the type of life-altering event that can ignite a passion and after bearing witness to the tragedy, Robert decides to quit school and focus full-time on becoming a cartoonist. His parents (played exceptionally by Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) have monetary resources readily available, but Robert, knowing his comic idols, R. Crumb, and others, didn’t make it because they had help, seeks to emancipate himself.
That means renting a worn-down, crummy apartment on the other side of town and working as an assistant for a public defender’s office. Ironically enough, it’s where he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a former color mixer at a prestigious comic studio who has obvious mental instability issues as he’s been charged with assaulting a Rite Aid pharmacist for no apparent reason.
Looking past his flaws, Robert sees the mentor he’s been yearning for, ignoring calls from his best friend (Miles Emanuel), who secretly has a crush on him, to start their own comic strip together. It results in an interesting balancing act about the turmoil of meeting your idols and whether or not we should hold them to high standards. Wallace didn’t have an illustrious career, but his name was on the page and it’s enough juice that convinces Robert to ask for lessons. You gotta respect the hustle.
Unfortunately, the hustle comes up short in the final half-hour as the cringe-inducing conflict of Robert bringing Wallace home for Christmas feels both implausible and silly. “Funny Pages” showcases Kline has put in the work and understands the craft, and the sheen 35mm glow that radiates from Sean Price Williams’ excellent cinematography helped soothe the rough patches. There’s no doubt a slick indie like this won’t find its eventual audience (especially for the A24 die-hards who will make this a cult classic), but I struggled to find a deeper connection amid the absurdity.
FUNNY PAGES debuts on all major digital platforms and retailers Friday, August 26th.