Funny Pages: sadly drawn boys

Owen Kline’s mordant debut, about the grimy life and mind of a budding underground comic-book artist, feels largely true to its milieu, but not all of its characters convince.

Daniel Zolghadri as Robert in Funny Pages (2022)

Owen Kline’s Funny Pages doesn’t belabour its timeliness, but it’s nonetheless a movie of the moment. Or maybe against it: for the last decade or so, critics, audiences, and filmmakers of every stripe have been invited (or forced) to pledge fidelity to various high-end cinematic comic-book universes. What could be snider or more defiant in these Marvel-saturated times than a wry comedy sympathetically sketching the grimy life and mind of a budding underground comic-book artist, a wannabe Harvey Pekar?

There’s no splendour (American or otherwise) in Funny Pages. With the help of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, by now a virtuoso at conjuring up everyday ugliness, Kline has styled his feature debut as a throbbing, bloodshot eyesore. The film’s lower-than-lo-fi look and loose hangout vibe evoke the indie cinema of the mid-90s more successfully than, say, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s (2018), or any number of contemporary indie throwbacks. At times, it’s as if Kline, who played a troubled young son in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), were trying to channel the raggedy, deadpan spirit of that director’s early work.

Funny Pages’ bracing cold open, which juxtaposes skinny, ascendant adolescent artist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) with his paunchy, dilapidated art-school mentor (Stephen Adly Guigis), is even nastier than that. Chewing over design ideas and philosophies of drawing, the kid and his guru are like two sides of the same coin. Then the teacher dies in a sick joke fashion that renders Robert accidentally complicit – a passing of the torch that’s also a punch in the gut.

In the aftermath of catastrophe, Robert ends up ditching his prosperous, sceptical parents and setting up shop in a blistering basement apartment in scenic Trenton, New Jersey. Awash in delusions of anti-grandeur, our hero is determined to use what little resources he still has to pay his dues. It turns out that living semi-legally in a fetid sweatbox is a good way to save on rent, as long as he doesn’t mind generationally older roommates who watch old movies on a laptop and casually masturbate in his presence. ($350 a month doesn’t even get him a partition, let alone a door.)

Robert is suffering, but he’s also gathering material and honing his craft. He even scores a day job with a public defender who’s charmed by some sample courtroom-sketch caricatures. To his longtime friend and fellow disreputable doodler Miles (Miles Emanuel), Robert is an inspiration. As the film goes on, their relationship is pressurised by all kinds of bad vibes: not just the usual jealousy and competitiveness but also Miles’ possible (and in any case unrequited) crush on his more successful and outgoing pal.

A third major character, Wallace (Matthew Maher), transforms Funny Pages from an insular, enervating duet into something broader and even more hostile. We first see him being interviewed for an upcoming court case in which he is the (obviously guilty) defendant; he is also a former comic-book colourist, and Robert gloms onto him as a reluctant mentor, despite the fact that the older man is palpably, seethingly out of his mind. The cautionary subtext is double-edged: the suggestion is not only that if Robert and Miles aren’t careful, they could turn into a guy like Wallace, but also perhaps that if they want to succeed in their chosen craft, they can’t afford to be better adjusted. In a crowded field, it’s obsessive, detail-oriented mania that separates amateurs from professionals.

Maher, who’s popped up around the edges of some major movies over the last few years – from Lady Bird (2017) to Captain Marvel (2019) to Marriage Story (2019) – is a master of discomfiture: everything about Wallace is credibly unpleasant, pent-up and solipsistic, and there’s a certain boldness in building so much of the movie around his presence, especially given his unlikely status as an aspirational figure. But Kline writes himself into a corner by focusing on a character who’s so hard to take. Eventually, all that’s left for Wallace to do is explode at his younger admirer, and while the inevitable blow-up has a few startling details (including an unexpectedly grotesque gore shot), it gives the impression of a filmmaker artificially drumming up drama from a situation that is essentially static. Funny Pages feels true to its milieu and to the very specific kind of beta-male pathology it prods without celebrating (or analysing), but that’s not the same thing as being believable – or, ultimately, very enjoyable.

Funny Pages is in UK cinemas now.