Because comic books currently inspire many of the world’s most popular movies and TV shows, it’s easy to forget that the original medium – the issues of individual comic books, most often found in specialty stores – remains a relatively niche interest. This is especially true for titles outside of the Marvel/DC superhero axis, and even more so for artists 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 to such a degree that it’s not immediately obvious that the film is set in the immediate present. Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is a New Jersey teenager obsessed with becoming a professional comic book creator, and the comic book shop where he hangs out and works part-time isn’t a sleek monument to the latest heirlooms. collection of premium superheroes and beautifully bound graphic novels. It’s seedy, filled with haphazardly stored back issues, and populated by varied (and often disgruntled) fans, budding artists, and weirdos. (One of them is played by former MTV comedian Andy Milonakis.)
Robert’s high school art teacher and mentor is such an underground comic book aficionado that he looks like he crawled straight out of a sketchbook and into the flesh. When Robert loses this guiding figure early in the film, he becomes even more disillusioned with his cushy suburban lifestyle and decides to strike out on his own. He leaves home, gets the best living situation he can afford (sharing an illegal basement apartment with two grown men), and gets a part-time job taking notes for a beleaguered local public defender. This is how he meets Wallace (Our flag means death star Matthew Maher), a seemingly unhinged eccentric who has been charged in a case where he collapsed at a local pharmacy.
Wallace has a double fascination with Robert. Like so many other characters in the film, he looks like a living caricature, like someone on the fringes of a Daniel Clowes comic strip. More surprisingly, Wallace worked in comics; he was a color splitter for Image in the 90s of the company’s high-flying superheroes. Seeking both authenticity and, ironically, some sort of industry connection, Robert turns to Wallace. Befriending him should be easy – Wallace needs money, rides and, it seems, emotional support. But he assures that the process is not going smoothly.
Writer-director Owen Kline has good reason to know how to develop a distinct, alternative artistic sensibility while trying to shake off upper-class respectability. 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 feature debut as writer-director is being released by prestigious distributor A24, as the cycle of nepotism continues. But to the extent that Kline has leveraged his industry connections, he’s used them to create something both catchy and dirty, shooting on grainy 16mm and giving juicy roles to actors who don’t look like to over-refined movie stars.
Kline cited the influence of mumblecore/indie films as Frownland by Ronald Bronstein, who later co-wrote films with the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems) — which in turn produced funny pages. There are certainly aspects of funny pages which recall the tension of comedic nightmares to Safdie’s head as Uncut Gems Where Good time, especially as the film reaches its climax. The harassed, hand-turned mayhem sometimes comes across as affected and second-hand, with bursts of violence that feel obligatory and more appropriate to these crime-focused Safdie films.
Fans of comic book adaptations to film, however, can see funny pages as closer to ghost world, the Daniel Clowes adaptation that also featured a character fascinated by the eccentrics (and potential artistic inspiration) around him. (Clowes is not identified 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’ work too respectable or intellectualized compared to his heroes.)
Robert doesn’t have quite the same lost teenage pain as Enid in ghost world. He’s more of a kid in over his head than a young person disturbed by the advance of consumerist adulthood. It’s the fragility of Robert’s not exactly friendship with Wallace that has some of the ruthless, darkly funny energy generated between Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi in ghost worlduntil the older person discovers a half-loving, half-cruel drawing of them made by the younger one (although, okay, without the sexual tension).
And like Buscemi in ghost world, Matthew Maher is a longtime actor who gets the space to give a fuller performance than in his smaller roles. He is obviously highly regarded by a variety of filmmakers, having made several films each for Ben Affleck, Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach and the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (including a small role in Captain Marvel, as Skrull Norex Science Officer). There’s a particular thrill to realizing he’s going to be a leader this time around. Maher’s piercing eyes are reminiscent of a softer version of Marty Feldman, and he gives Wallace a nervous, nervous energy made funnier by his frustrated outbursts. The best of them expose how Robert’s esoteric love of old-fashioned talking animal tapes and transgressive explicitness aren’t particularly compatible with Wallace’s tastes. Maher has a wonderful way of making Wallace seem both impossible and reasonable in a single scene.
Kline’s film works best when it blurs the lines between people from a nerdy subculture and the style of their obsessions. Kline seems to delight in coming up with subjects too perfect for Robert’s sensibilities, like the odd sweaty roommates in the overheated basement he briefly calls home. When the movie attempts to give Robert more coming-of-age reckoning, it feels like he may have skipped a step or two, ending on a contemplative note that doesn’t seem entirely deserved. . It’s a trap of the otherwise admirable 86-minute running time. But in a cultural landscape where even superhero satire can seem obvious and overproduced, funny pages offers a needed reminder that for many people, comics are a beautiful, obsessive dead end.
Funny Pages is in theaters and on demand on Friday, August 26.