As With the Newspaper Sections of Old, There’s Much To Like in ‘Funny Pages’

Just like some comics, the film also contains occasional confrontational weirdness, but it’s an exhilarating watch and a worthy entry in the coming-of-age genre.

Via A24
Daniel Zolghadri in ‘Funny Pages.’ Via A24

“Funny Pages” opens this week, and if you’re looking to see something unconventional in both content and construction, then it just might be the ticket for you. A scene from “Poltergeist” comes to mind: when JoBeth Williams’s character asks her husband, played by Craig T. Nelson, to remember their days in college, when they were willing to try new things and were open to alternative experiences. In that spirit, “Funny Pages” is an exhilarating watch and, despite its occasionally confrontational weirdness, a worthy entry in the coming-of-age genre.

Our hero is Robert, a precocious New Jersey high schooler whose art teacher dies at the start of the movie and who may blame himself for the death. Before the death, there’s an outrageous scene in which the teacher tries to get Robert to let loose the fetters of proper art craftsmanship. I doubt there will be a more shocking or hilarious opening to a movie this year.

His well-to-do parents try to reason with Robert after he informs them he won’t be returning to school to get his diploma, but he insists he can always get a GED and that art schools only care about his portfolio. Set in a diner, this discussion goes on for quite a few minutes, like many of the scenes. There’s a pace and rhythm to the movie that’s quite all its own, with conversations in particular never ending at points you think they might. 

After leaving school, Robert continues to work at a local comic book shop, gets a used car, starts another job working for a quirky public defender, and finds a shared apartment in the basement of an old house at Trenton. His roommates are two very odd middle-aged men who seem not to mind the immense heat emanating from the radiators, or the cramped living arrangements. My first thought was how much of a fire risk it was, since the space had just one entry and exit stairwell. But bourgeois comfort and safety concerns don’t enter into the mind of Robert, who bristles at the wealth and privilege of his parents and seeks a more subversive life. His constant sketching and drawing of comics also reflect this rebelliousness with its sexual gags and anatomical exaggerations.

It’s at this point that Robert meets Wallace, who’s being questioned in the office of the civic attorney about an incident at a drugstore. Wallace is another intensely unusual, even disturbed, middle-aged man, but Robert wants to get to know him because he used to work in the comic book industry. Thus the movie shifts into another gear as high jinks ensue during their interactions.

Owen Kline directs “Funny Pages” with an eye for detail, but sometimes the extreme closeups and focus on the grotesque get tiresome, even in a movie that runs less than 90 minutes. As the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, he might be expected to handle actors well, and sure enough this is where he truly excels. From the main roles to the bit parts, none of the actors resort to campiness or irony despite the outré nature of some of the characterizations.  

As Robert, Daniel Zolghadri exhibits all the qualities of a talented, bratty teenager looking to break free from his pampered homelife: arrogance, curiosity, naivety, and gumption. Miles Emanuel plays Robert’s acne-ridden, nerdy best friend Miles, and his performance breaks one’s heart with its sensitivity and teenage veracity. 

Near the end, Miles asks several times after being confronted with Wallace’s disdain for the two friends’ crudely designed comics “Is form more important than soul?” The question could be put to the movie itself, and the answer would be that what it may lack in structure and style, it more than makes up for in personality and soul.

The New York Sun

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