Because comic books currently inspire many of the most popular movies and TV shows worldwide, it’s easy to forget that the original medium — individual comic books, usually found in specialty stores — remains a relatively niche interest. That’s especially true for titles outside the Marvel/DC superhero axis, and even more so for cartoonists whose work is more inspired by R. Crumb or Carl Barks than Stan Lee or Jack Kirby.
Owen Kline’s Memorable, Sometimes Hilarious Film Funny pages understands this in such a way that it is not immediately obvious that the film is set in the immediate present. Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is a New Jersey teen obsessed with becoming a professional comic book creator, and the comic book store where he hangs out and works part-time isn’t a slick monument to the latest high-end superhero collectibles and attractively bound graphic novels. It’s dingy, full of haphazardly stored old tracks, and populated by diverse (and often disgruntled) fans, aspiring performers and lunatics. (One of them is played by former MTV comedian Andy Milonakis.)
Robert’s high school art teacher and mentor is such a lover of underground comedy that he looks like he just crawled out of a sketchbook. When Robert loses this leading figure early in the film, he becomes even more disillusioned with his quiet suburban lifestyle and decides to go it alone. He leaves the house, gets the best possible living situation he can afford (sharing an illegal basement with two grown men) and gets a part-time job taking notes for a beleaguered local public defender. That’s how he meets Wallace (Our flag means death star Matthew Maher), a seemingly unbalanced bum who has been charged in a case of freaking out at a local pharmacy.
Wallace has a double fascination with Robert. Like so many of the other characters in the film, he looks like a living caricature, like someone from the fringes of a Daniel Clowes comic. Even more surprising, Wallace worked in comics; he was a color separator for Image in the company’s high-flying superhero in the ’90s. Looking for authenticity and, paradoxically, some sort of industrial connection, Robert peeks at Wallace. Befriending him should be easy – Wallace needs money, rides and, it seems, emotional support. But he ensures that the process does not run smoothly.
Writer-director Owen Kline has good reason to know about developing a distinctive, alternative artistic sensibility while trying to shake off the respectability of the upper class. He is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he played the younger brother in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Now his first feature film as a writer-director comes out through the prestigious distributor A24, as the cycle of nepotism continues. But to whatever extent Kline has tapped into his industry connections, he’s used them to create something gritty and grubby, shooting grainy 16mm and giving juicy roles to actors who don’t look like overly polished movie stars.
Kline has the influence of mumblecore/indie movies like frownland by Ronald Bronstein, who went on to write films with the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gemstones) — which in turn produced Funny pages. There are definitely aspects of Funny pages that recall the thrill of Safdie helmet comic nightmares, such as: Uncut Gemstones or Good time, especially when the film reaches its climax. The haunted mayhem shot from the hand at times comes across as influenced and second-hand, with outbursts of violence that feel obligatory, more suited to those crime-driven Safdie movies.
Fans of comic-to-movie adaptations can see it though Funny pages as more akin to Ghost world, the Daniel Clowes adaptation that also featured a character fascinated by the eccentrics (and potential artistic inspiration) around her. (Clowes not checked in by name) Funny pages; the characters are so richly imagined that it’s easy to extrapolate that Robert, a big fan of Peter Bagge, might find Clowes’s work too respectable or too intellectual compared to his heroes.)
Robert doesn’t have the same lost teenage pain as Enid in Ghost world. He is more of a child in his head than a youngster disturbed by the advancing consumer adulthood. It’s the quirkiness of Robert’s not-exact friendship with Wallace that generated some of the relentless, darkly funny energy between Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi in Ghost worlddown to the older person discovering a half affectionate, half cruel drawing of them by the younger person (although, admittedly, without the sexual tension).
And like Buscemi in Ghost worldMatthew Maher is a longtime character actor who is given the space to give a fuller performance than he does in his smaller parts. He is clearly loved by several filmmakers, having made several films for Ben Affleck, Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach and the duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (including a small part in Captain Marvel, as Skrull Science Officer Norex). There’s a quirky thrill in realizing he’s getting a lead role this time around. Maher’s piercing eyes recall a softer version of Marty Feldman, and he gives Wallace a squirrel-like, nervous energy made funnier by his frustrated outbursts. The best of these show how Robert’s esoteric love for old-fashioned talking animal comics and cross-border explicitness aren’t exactly compatible with Wallace’s tastes. Maher has a great way of making Wallace sound both impossible and reasonable within a single scene.
Kline’s film works best when it blurs the line between the people of a nerdy subculture and the style of their obsessions. Kline seems to enjoy coming up with subjects that are too perfect for Robert’s sensibility, such as the strange, sweaty roommates in the overheated basement apartment he briefly calls home. When the movie tries to give Robert more of a coming-of-age bill, it feels like he may have skipped a step or two and ends on a contemplative note that doesn’t feel quite deserved. It is a pitfall of the otherwise admirable playing time of 86 minutes. But in a cultural landscape where even superhero satire can be obvious and overproduced, Funny pages provides a necessary reminder that for many people, comics are a beautiful, obsessive dead end.
Funny Pages opens in theaters on Friday, August 26, and on demand.