In almost—almost—every way, writer-director Owen Kline’s new film FUnny Pages is an absolute gem of a coming-of-age tale, a teenager’s first adventure into independence and adulthood, set on the periphery of comics and publishing. Its script is nuanced and earnest, its performances, especially from lead Daniel Zolghadri, impeccable, and its cinematography realistically grungy. The story it tells is a cinema that rarely takes time to examine, its portrayal of a teenager on the precipice of adulthood hungry for insight.
And yet, for all its strengths, comedic weaknesses, and thoughtful ideas, the film’s narrative loses momentum as it nears its third act. And it’s a shame, because most of the time funny pages is a film as touching and telling as I had seen all year.
Zolghadri (Eigth year) plays Robert, a high school student employed at a local comic book store in Princeton, New Jersey. Openly dismissive of the middle-class life his parents (Josh Pais, Maria Dizzia) led and the college life they planned for him, he rebels with his artistry. Obsessed with the graphic and debauched “funny pages” of past eras, Robert apprentices under the tutelage of Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), an avuncular art instructor who teaches the young boy to draw anatomy – by exposing his own .
But when Robert is suddenly left practicing his trade without Mr. Katano’s instruction, he makes a series of rash choices. To his parents’ chagrin, he dropped out of school, bought a car nicknamed “La Cucaracha” and rented a basement apartment near Trenton to ply his trade. Its landlord Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) and new roommate Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr) live in such abject squalor you can smell its funk and touch its sweat: They go about their days with wine and old movies, and Robert notices barely the multiple warning signs that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the place to hone your craft.
Even so, Robert manages to land a job, entering data for a public defender (Marcia DeBonis), where he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), an outburst-prone middle-aged man who used to work in comics. Desperate for mentorship in Mr. Katano’s absence, Robert unsuccessfully tries to enlist Wallace as a friend and advisor even as the older man wants nothing to do with the teenager or his needs. The more Robert and his comrade Miles (Miles Emanuel) inquire about Wallace’s career, the worse things get for both of them.
For its first two-thirds or so, funny pages is absolutely convincing. Zolghadri is an excellent actor whose portrait of Robert is authentic and measured. Robert is introverted and talented but socially inept, and Zolghadri’s performance reveals both a senseless rejection of his parents’ values and an unacknowledged need for a male role model, even where such a man does not exist. Zolghadri’s understated affect and calm demeanor belies the character’s wacky decision-making, and even when you feel – and you will be feel extreme frustration with Robert’s choices, you will always want him to succeed.
The supporting cast is equally excellent. DeBonis, Wright, Thomas, and Giurgis form a sort of gallery of offbeat adults who may or may not have Robert’s best interests at heart. Each presents their character as a human being with their quirks and limitations. Vets Ron Rifkin and Louise Lasser make small cameos. Pais and Dizzia are convincing as Robert’s well-meaning but utterly incompetent parents. As Miles’ best pal, who presses Robert on matters of artistic integrity, Miles Emanuel shines in a small role. Kudos to casting director Jennifer Vendritti for her expert work putting together a perfect cast of outcasts.
And although funny pages runs on a seemingly modest budget, its cinematography, editing, and music are top-notch. Cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny aim for grungy ’70s-style realism using coarse-grained colors and 16mm cameras, preferring to let the camera linger on the contrasts between faces young and old in its distribution. (A few shots, like Robert’s slow pace in a drugstore or the almost always fixed closing shot, will stick with viewers long after the credits end.) Sean O’Hagan’s score is simple and minimalist, but perfectly suited to the bizarre action of the film. . And best of all, the artistry created for the film (think R. Crumb meets Ralph Bakshi) by Jonny Ryan, Rick Altergott, Peter Begge and others makes for a weirdly quirky, subversive and, yes, slightly pornographic design.
It might seem almost rude, then, in a film so skillfully cast, shot and crafted, to talk about its flaws. Maher’s character, Wallace, is played well by the decorated veteran of stage, screen and television. But he is both the least interesting character in the film and the one, apart from Robert de Zolghadri, to whom he devotes the most time. The more and more Robert tries to enlist Wallace from Maher as a friend and mentor, the more it becomes apparent that Wallace’s quirks—his overt hostility and quick temper—constitute his entire character. It’s not Maher’s fault, but Wallace, a man who for a time held a small job on the periphery of the comics industry and now spends his time approaching almost everyone who interacts with him , just doesn’t have enough depth to engage the story. .
Even despite his missteps, funny pages bodes well for the careers of its writer-director Kline and its star Zolghadis. Kline, the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, who made his acting and crew debut on brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie’s shorts. Later he was cast in Noah Baumbach’s The squid and the whale. Kline demonstrates a significant talent for guiding and working with his actors, and funny pages is a film with a distinct, recognizable and highly effective style, a spiritual cousin of ghost world and American Splendor and a movie much, much deeper than the squeaky comedy some are certain to confuse it for. Zolghadis, meanwhile, looks set for a breakout with a role that is sure to bring him considerable success.
At Cannes, funny pages debuted to an extended standing ovation. It’s a film that, like its protagonist (and perhaps its writer-director), has great potential whether it’s ultimately realized or not. Executive produced by the Safdie Brothers with Sebastian Bear-McClard, Ronald Bronstein, Oscar Boyson and David Duque-Estrada, funny pages is distributed by A24 and made its theatrical debut on August 26, 2002.