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Delightful disillusion leaps off the darkly comic “Funny Pages”

Owen Kline’s debut coming-of-age feature premieres at UW Cinematheque on September 15.
Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) diligently works on his comic in the dimly lit basement of his Trenton apartment.
Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) diligently works on his comic in the dimly lit basement of his Trenton apartment.

Owen Kline’s debut coming-of-age feature premieres at UW Cinematheque on September 15.

There have been no shortage of young male coming-of-age films in recent memory (see: Boyhood, Moonlight, and Good Boys released between 2014-2019). Oftentimes, they follow a formulaic path toward self-discovery and offer a redemption arc by their end. Funny Pages (2022) bucks this tendency and does no such thing, making it one of this year’s most engaging releases. It has its Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque on Thursday, September 15, at 7 p.m.

First-time director Owen Kline (who you may remember as the weird kid ejaculating all over school in Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale back in 2005) doesn’t cling to heartfelt, sentimental moments between father and son or boy-meets-girl romanticized tropes, and ends up with one of the most delightfully misanthropic films I have seen in a long time. Kline takes a no-holds-barred approach to the ebbs and flows of meeting one’s heroes.

The film introduces teen protagonist Robert Bleichner (Daniel Zolghadri) reviewing some of his work with art school teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis, a bit of an analogue for Robert Crumb). His teacher absolutely raves about his work and says Robert really has what it takes to be a professional cartoonist now. Good enough for the likes of a Mad Magazine, even. Shortly after this interaction, Katano has an unfortunate accident, and Robert decides to tell his hapless parents Jennifer and Lewis (deftly portrayed by Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) that he’s decided not to go to college in the fall, and is instead pursuing comic book-drawing full time. While dismayed, they ultimately decide to let Robert forge his own path and discover what the world is truly about.

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His best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel) is a bit of a close talker, but is super encouraging. In fact, he might be too encouraging, confronting Robert about his own concepts and drawings while Robert is busy trying to get his independent comic off the ground. Robert sees Miles as encroaching on his territory. Plus, as an artist, Miles is mediocre at-best.

In order to make ends meet and pay rent, Robert gets a job working with a public defender (Marcia DeBonis). It’s here that he happens to meet the perturbed Wallace Shearer (Matthew Maher), who is working with the public defender after he gets into a violent altercation with a pharmacist at the Rite-Aid. Wallace is extremely acerbic, prone to violent outbursts, and devoid of social skills. He also happens to be a former colorist at Image Comics. So, when Robert finds this out, he sees it as a sign that he simply must insert himself into this man’s life so he can learn more about the comic book industry.

Robert finds an apartment in Trenton, New Jersey, in the basement of a run-down apartment that could easily double for one of the sets of Hostel (2006). Two older men already live there, and their relationship is not quite clear. However, it is anything but healthy. Any normal human being would run screaming for the hills after seeing this place. But Robert sees it as the price of admission to pursue his dream, regarding himself as the quintessential struggling artist who’s living in a hovel eating ramen, dedicating himself to his craft.

They say to never meet your heroes, even if Wallace is more of an anti-anti hero in Funny Pages. Any normal, everyday human interaction causes pain and frustration for him, but Robert is not at all deterred, arranging a plan to pay Wallace for art lessons. This entails Wallace visiting Robert’s parents’ house in the suburbs. And what follows are some of the more cringeworthy comic scenes in the movie, as Wallace convinces Robert to go the Rite-Aid and bait the pharmacist into an altercation. The film boasts so many moments when Robert, who seemingly has a good head on his shoulders, decides to go against all common sense. But what can one expect when he’s surrounded by bad influences?

Of course, the film’s true strength is all in the casting. Matthew Maher brings a biting wit to Wallace, while still instilling him with some level of pathos. Emanuel portrays Miles as the quintessential touchy-feely comic-book nerd who opines, “Is form more important than soul?” before he experiences Wallace on the edge.

Robert’s other part-time gig at a comic-book store is filled with all of the outcasts and denizens one would expect at these establishments, sort of like in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity. These scenes are relatable to anyone who has actually spent more than five minutes in one. Every neckbeard is a kindred spirit to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, waxing and waning about how much damage Sir Volkencraft can do to Baldur’s Gate. By Funny Pages‘ final moments, I found myself reminded of Ronald Bronstein’s grungy microbudget work, Frownland (2007). And, lo and behold, Bronstein is actually a producer of this film, along with Benny and Josh Safdie (of Good Time). Their films, just like Funny Pages, are dripping with misanthropy, leaving the viewer with a solid punch to the gut.

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