Because comic books currently inspire many of the most globally popular movies and TV shows, it’s easy to forget that the original medium — individual comics issues, most commonly found in specialty shops — remains a relatively niche interest. That’s especially true for titles outside of the Marvel/DC axis of superheroes, 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 movie Funny Pages understands this to such a degree that it isn’t immediately obvious that the movie is set in the immediate present. Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is a New Jersey teenager obsessed with becoming a professional comics creator, and the comics shop 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, packed with haphazardly stored back issues, and populated by assorted (and often malcontented) fans, aspiring 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-comix aficionado that he looks as if 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, obtains the best living situation he can afford (sharing an illegal basement apartment with two adult 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 crank who has been charged in a case where he flipped out at a local pharmacy.
Wallace holds dual fascination for Robert. Like so many other characters in the movie, he looks like a living caricature, like someone from the margins of a Daniel Clowes comic. More surprising, Wallace used to work in comics; he was a color separator for Image back in the company’s high-flying superhero ’90s. Seeking both authenticity and, paradoxically, some kind of industry connection, Robert gloms onto Wallace. Befriending him should be easy — Wallace needs money, rides, and, it seems, emotional support. But he ensures that the process does not go smoothly.
Writer-director Owen Kline has good reason to know about developing a distinctive, alternative artistic sensibility while trying to shake off upper-class respectability. He’s the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he played the younger brother in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 movie The Squid and the Whale. Now, his first feature as a writer-director is coming out through prestigious distributor A24, as the nepotism cycle churns on. But to whatever extent Kline has leveraged his industry connections, he’s used them to create something both grabby and grubby, shooting on grainy 16mm and giving juicy roles to actors who don’t look like overly polished movie stars.
Kline has cited the influence of mumblecore/indie movies like Frownland from Ronald Bronstein, who went on to co-write movies with the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems) — who in turn produced Funny Pages. There are certainly aspects of Funny Pages that recall the tension of Safdie-helmed comic nightmares like Uncut Gems or Good Time, particularly as the movie reaches its climax. The harried, handheld-shot chaos sometimes comes across affected and secondhand, with bursts of violence that feel obligatory, and more appropriate to those crime-driven Safdie movies.
Fans of comics-to-movie adaptations, though, may see Funny Pages as more akin to Ghost World, the Daniel Clowes adaptation that also featured a character fascinated by the oddballs (and potential artistic inspiration) around her. (Clowes isn’t name-checked in 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 in comparison to his heroes.)
Robert doesn’t have quite the same lost teenage ache as Enid in Ghost World. He’s more a kid in over his head than a young person disturbed by encroaching consumerist adulthood. It’s the fractiousness of Robert’s not-exactly-friendship with Wallace that has some of the unsparing, darkly funny energy generated between Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, right down to the older person discovering a half-affectionate, half-cruel drawing of them done by the younger person (though, granted, without the sexual tension).
And like Buscemi in Ghost World, Matthew Maher is a longtime character actor getting the space to give a fuller performance than he does in his smaller parts. He’s obviously well-liked by a variety of filmmakers, having done multiple movies each for Ben Affleck, Kevin Smith, Noah Baumbach, and the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (including a bit part in Captain Marvel, as Skrull Science Officer Norex). There’s a peculiar thrill in realizing he gets to be a lead this time out. Maher’s piercing eyes recall a gentler version of Marty Feldman, and he gives Wallace a squirrely, nervous energy made funnier by his frustrated outbursts. The best of these expose how Robert’s esoteric love of old-timey talking-animal strips and transgressive explicitness are not especially compatible with Wallace’s tastes. Maher has a wonderful way of making Wallace sound both impossible and reasonable within a single scene.
Kline’s movie works best when it blurs the lines between the people of a nerdy subculture and the style of their obsessions. Kline seems to delight in coming up with too-perfect subjects for Robert’s sensibility, like the strange, sweaty roommates in the overheated basement dwelling he briefly calls home. When the movie attempts to give Robert more of a coming-of-age reckoning, it feels like maybe it’s skipped a step or two, ending on a contemplative note that doesn’t feel completely earned. It’s a pitfall of the otherwise admirable 86-minute running time. But in a cultural landscape where even superhero satire can feel obvious and overproduced, Funny Pages offers a necessary reminder that for many people, comics are a beautiful, obsessive dead end.
Funny Pages is in theaters and on demand on Friday, Aug. 26.