We’re surrounded by comic books. Or it often feels like it. From the all-immersive universes of Marvel and DC to the nerdy conversations and visits to the comic book store in those endless Big Bang Theory re-runs, it’s almost impossible to avoid them. They’re the glue holding together Funny Pages, former child actor Owen Kline’s feature debut as a director, but you might have to look hard for actual heroes, be they super or good old fashioned regular.
Geeky teenager Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is a talented artist and cartoonist, coached by a teacher he idolises. His mentor’s sudden death spurs him to start believing in himself and strike out on his own. That means swopping the comfortable safety of the family home for a room in a sweaty cellar with a group of oddballs and the monotony of a clerical job in the DA’s office to support himself while he tries to establish himself as an artist. It’s there that he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), the colour separator on one of his favourite comic books and it’s like dream come true, the possibility of inspiration and guidance from somebody who had the success he yearns for, but Wallace himself lives a life of chaos. And it’s deeply unfunny.
The involvement of Josh and Benny Safdie – they’re both producers – immediately raises expectations of something with their frenetically electric view of the world and, for the first half, Funny Pages delivers in spades. The humour is sharp, the tastes is sometimes bad, Robert is a likeable but equally naïve and frustrating teenager and his relationship with his middle class parents is nicely drawn. Even better are the sequences in the grim basement apartment, with its bizarre owner, ridiculously high temperatures and sweat so prevalent you can almost smell it. It’s all wince-making, but bitingly funny.
But while the discomfort continues into the second half, the overall tone darkens to near-black with the arrival of Wallace. To his credit, he constantly reminds Robert that he had no creative input into the comic books he worked on but, aside from that, he’s both unpleasant and very unwell. It takes next to nothing to trigger a destructive outburst so that, while being made to feel uncomfortable earlier on was designed to produce humour, the acid wit is gone and so is the laughter and much of that is because of Wallace’s character. Matthew Maher plays him to the hilt but he’s been saddled with role where the redeeming features are sparse.
Zolghadri is great as Robert, a role that harks back to director Kline’s role as a troubled 12 year old in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, and there are some pithy cameos. Watch out especially for Louise Lasser as a crabby woman in the pharmacist. But this is a film that only half delivers, despite the director’s obvious talent. Its off-kilter look at coming of age, without any of the soft focus that frequently plagues the genre, has a strong appeal and there are times when the first part leaps off the screen. If only it was matched by the second half …..
Comedy, Satire | Cert: 18 | Curzon | UK cinemas from 16 September 2022 | Dir. Owen Kline | Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Michael Townsend Wright, Miles Emanuel