Review: ‘Funny Pages’ finds soul between silliness and seediness

Owen Kline’s directorial debut hurls into the madcap world of underground comics with gleeful crassness. “Funny Pages” is currently playing at Film at Lincoln Center and is available for rent on video on demand.

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A24’s new movie “Funny Pages” is a fresh comedic take on the classic coming of age genre by director Owen Kline. (Courtesy of A24)

Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, Arts Editor

From the studio that distributed contemporary coming-of-age classics like “Lady Bird” and “20th Century Women,” Owen Kline’s “Funny Pages” is A24’s latest spin on the genre. However, instead of being another schmaltzy, nominally inventive twist on what it means to come of age, the film is much more than that. “Funny Pages” turns the familiar formula of the bildungsroman entirely on its head. With layers of comic genius, the film shines due to its concentrated, uproarious madness and tender lessons on what it means to be stuck sandwiched by a dependence on adults, a drive to be an adult and an awareness that they too, are human — they’re struck with the same proneness to fail as everyone else.

Following the downward spiral of an ambitious adolescent cartoonist Robert (Daniel Zolghardi) fleeing suburban New Jersey with the hopes of becoming a big name in the small world of underground comics, Kline’s debut feature delicately patches together an investigation into the sleazier side of cartooning. Sharing more in common with the perverse idiosyncrasies of Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge and Johnny Ryan — whose drawings are featured in the film — than any recent comedic release aside from the gleefully gross “Jackass Forever,” Kline’s comedy of manners is a rare delight from a first-time filmmaker. 

Kicking off with an ambitious gag that sees Robert’s beloved high school teacher and mentor Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) undress before him so that he can have a unique figure model in his portfolio, and then die in a sudden car crash minutes later, Kline sells his style early on: slimy, silly and bleak. The tone is set, and the story only soars from there as Robert orbits around a stacked cast of the sleaziest character actors put to screen while grieving his lost mentor and trying to claim independence as a wannabe alternative graphic novelist. 

Thus begins a sordid journey through the nooks and crannies of the comic book world. Employing celluloid to capture the most microscopic evils of curled chins and slimy showers, cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny, alongside an excellent production team, stage a tableau of neurotic artists and suburban characters whose every pore oozes personality. 

This investigation into an otherwise rarely represented art-niche reveals the absurd underpinnings behind the unbridled expression that comes about from cartoonists, armed with pen and paper exploring their weirdest thoughts. Showing just how weird this seldom explored branch of the art world really is, the film anchors the madcap drawings and demeanors of its characters in a tangible reality where every quirk on display inspires laughter. 

Working with this background outlandishness, Kline’s circuitous storytelling structure, where each lesson Robert learns hits him harder than the last rather than building his character by toughening him up, represents a true subversion of what audiences have to come to expect with coming-of-age films. If anything, a greater hope and universality seeps out of Kline’s depressing tale as the constant checks against Robert’s will to become an artist — the grizzly reality of cheap apartments, the despairing truths of a selective industry that spits casualties out with no remorse, and the inability to eat pancakes with your parents when you’re no longer living at home — don’t break his drive to succeed, but speak to the kamikaze ambitions of tenacious, young, perhaps naïve artists.

By the end, the young Robert appears more grown up than the actual adults surrounding him. He appears stunted by thought as he struts, having traded his trademark zeal for success and accompanying ambitious eyes for a brooding, broken look.

While other movies try to lamely boil down the meaning of growing up to a scene of a teenager gallivanting to new-age music, or expressively assuming a false mastery of some great theme ranging from death to love, “Funny Pages” demonstrates much more maturity. The film is a learned, spoken-from-the-heart knowledge of what it means to grow up. Whether it mirrors Kline’s own long-winded journey making this film is beyond the spectator.

As it lands on an abrupt, aimless face, Kline’s “Funny Pages” achieves a much more prudent finale — one charged with soul that retroactively ennobles its lessons on navigating childishness, sophomoric-ness, adulthood and more than anything, time itself.

Contact Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]