Funny Pages Review – IGN

Funny Pages debuts in select theaters and on demand on Aug. 26, 2022.

Owen Kline’s feature directorial debut Funny Pages is preoccupied with the human face. He films his actors in extreme closeups, highlighting the beads of sweat on their foreheads or their cheeks full of acne. He zooms in on all the crevices that movie cameras tend to try to erase, magnifying pores and wrinkles.

In some ways, Kline’s teenage protagonist, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), does the same thing with his pen. He’s an aspiring cartoonist who makes a habit of turning faces into comedy, exaggerating noses and eyes, often with little regard for the actual person he’s mocking. It’s all supremely — sometimes hilariously — cringeworthy, both a tribute to the world of underground comics Kline clearly loves and a reminder that teens can be horribly self-centered assholes.

Kline is probably still best known for his work on screen as the little brother of Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, but Funny Pages establishes him as an excitingly grimy talent and a director who relishes in making his audiences and characters deeply uncomfortable. It’s no surprise then that Funny Pages was produced by Uncut Gems‘ Josh and Benny Safdie, the kings of stressful cinema, and has the same quasi-voyeuristic, should-I-really-be-watching-this energy. If you can stand it, it’s a brutal coming-of-age story about a kid’s own snobbery coming to bite him in the ass.

Robert is a talented if maybe a little too assured high schooler who wants to make drawing perverse comics his life’s work. He has a job at a comic book store where he and the other employees turn their nose up at superhero fare in favor of the weird and overtly sexual. After his beloved art teacher (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis) dies in a gruesome car accident that Robert witnesses, Robert tells his frustrated parents that he’s quitting school, and moves out of their upper middle class home in Princeton for an illegal residence in Trenton that he shares with two older men.

To support himself, Robert gets a job as a stenographer for the public defender assigned to him when he’s caught breaking into his dead teacher’s apartment. There, he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a squirrely, anxious man facing potential jail time. Robert’s ears perk up, however, when he realizes that Wallace used to be a color separatist at Image Comics. While Wallace is initially peeved by Robert’s eager questions, he eventually sees an opportunity for himself, and starts to entertain the teen’s desire to be taught the ways of an actual professional comic book artist.

Zolghadri, who has appeared in Eighth Grade and Alex Strangelove, is in the unenviable position of playing a hero that you will probably want to punch in the face at least sometime throughout Funny Pages’ 90 minutes. Robert is often arrogant and cruel, a child of privilege who thinks he’s a rebel. He uses others as pawns in his own ambition — Wallace, yes, but also his friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), who also draws, but not at the expense of everything else in his life. Zolghadri nails Robert’s brand of nerdy confidence, while also finding the pitiable in him. The other actors playing principal roles — both veterans like Maher and newcomers like Emanuel — similarly find ways to highlight their characters’ weirdness without giving up their humanity. Meanwhile, Kline throws other oddballs in Robert’s path, like a truly unnerving, screaming, opioid-addicted older woman who just happens to be portrayed by 1970s television star Louise Lasser.

It’s intentionally an ugly movie, reveling in washed-out New Jersey highways and alleys.

While Funny Pages ostensibly takes place in the present day, Kline and his cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, lean heavily into throwback aesthetics, shooting on grainly Super 16 mm film stock. It’s intentionally an ugly movie, reveling in washed-out New Jersey highways and alleys. They focus on Robert’s mouth when it’s full of food and the fish tank long left unattended in Robert’s Trenton flophouse. But the overarching effect is that of a lost gem you found buried in the back of a dusty store. Like the alt-comics that Robert idolizes, the movie itself seems destined to be passed around among budding cinephiles like a secret.

The final act ratchets up the action to a surprisingly bloody fever pitch, but Kline chooses to end Funny Pages with a thud. This is not the kind of movie where anyone learns any profound lessons or experiences any major growth — at least not that we see. Robert ends up in a hell of his own making, and Kline leaves us to sit in that squalor with him.

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