Funny Pages is a film designed to make you feel extremely uncomfortable.
From its unique cast of characters, overzealous and deliberate use of extreme close ups and overall grimy feel, Owen Kline’s feature debut is sure to ruffle many a feather, and garner itself a cult following.
Like a Robert Crumb strip come to life, Funny Pages follows Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), an aspiring comic book artist who, after the sudden death of his mentor Mr Katano (Stephn Adly Guirgis), decides he is done with high school and wants to take up drawing full time.
Funny Pages acts as a kind of anti-Whiplash. Stripped of any flash or style, energy or charm, it’s a bizarro version of a similar tale, in that a young protege is seeking excellence from a questionable source, and by any means necessary. And while the Miles Teller character in that film wasn’t exactly the most likeable protagonist out there, Funny Pages introduces you to his brattier cousin.
Throughout its brisk 86 minute runtime, I couldn’t help but feel like I was teetering on some sort of moral see saw. Kline’s casting, framing and overall approach forces you to feel uneasy about the moments and people you’re laughing at. It’s a razor sharp edge between being entertained by the bizarreness of this tale and possibly losing sight of the humanity of its characters. Kline wants to bring a Crumb cartoon to life, and he casts individuals that look like they’ve been ripped off those pages and into the real world, but the translation is bumpy.
Later in the film, Robert attaches himself to another would-be mentor, Wallace (Matthew Maher). A troubled man, Wallace merely wants to be left alone, but when Robert finds out about his past as an artist for Image comics, the young cartoonist ignores any and all rebuffs, having found his new Mr Katano. It’s through Wallace that the movie begins to lose its humour, and finds a more stark and tragic tone. Any other film would be more interested in Robert’s rise as a talented cartoonist, whereas Funny Pages is far more interested in the failures, not just of a career, but of life, and it becomes difficult to laugh at that.
Another eclectic entry in the A24 catalog, Funny Pages may be able to pass itself off as a quirky coming of age story, through it’s awkward nature, drab cinematography and overall lo-fi aesthetic, but there is something uniquely bitter seeping through its veins. It can be something easily misconstrued as poverty porn, like some sort of zoo attraction – “step right up and laugh at the people life has stepped on!” But Kline seems all too aware of this, conveying that through Wallace, an individual who simply wants to be left alone, but is being chased by some who, as he exclaims is “obsessed with my failure”. And in that moment, Funny Pages is no longer an off-beat whimsical coming of age drama, but a smack in the mouth to those watching. Feels bad, man.