Written and directed by Owen Kline
Owen Kline’s debut feature is a ratty little thing and an uncautious cautionary tale of erroneous idolatry, chock-full of crass sequences, abrasive characters and brash filmmaking that combine for a rough, but auspicious beginning.
Daniel Zolghradi stars as Robert: high school senior, budding cartoonist and a little too high on his teacher’s praise. Following a twist of fate that’s almost too much of a twist, Robert decides there’s no time like the present and takes a great leap, dropping out of high school, moving into a shared basement room in Trenton, New Jersey, with two elderly men, and getting a gig as a public defender’s notetaker while he pursues his dream of penning those crude underground comics he idolizes. All his heroes didn’t finish high school either, he tells his poor bewildered parents, and off he goes.
Robert is a headstrong, insecure, yet outwardly abusive teen, channeling his fears and doubts over his current situation to lash out at his only friend Miles and his parents. Hard to root for, were it not that many characters Kline introduces us to have a surprising mean streak, and perhaps the meanest of them all is Wallace (Matthew Maher), a former color assistant at comic book publisher and now on trial for assaulting a pharmacist. Robert ignores the red flag parade of Wallace’s present and goes starry-eyed over his past, setting him up for a long series of misadventures trying to get in Wallace’s good graces.
Maher’s script is big on curse words, abusive attitudes and it takes a saint in New Jersey to stay civil, as Robert is either treated to unfair treatment, unsettling living arrangements and frustrated ambitions.
Kline doesn’t help either, his style is actually an accelerant. People are (far too) close in his framing, and they’re covered in grease, blood, sweat and god knows what, prattling off lines with spittle flying off trembling lips. Ever taken a few steps back from a stranger? Imagine not being able to but instead being prodded to get closer. If the stars of the Hollywood golden age were said to belong on the big screen, the cast of Funny Pages belong on a security monitor, preferably low-res.
His and Neil Benezra’s sound design is similarly intrusive: loud, and oftentimes off-screen to pester, prod and upset you, leaving you nothing that resembles a moment of respite, and that’s forgetting the often excruciatingly awkward if not downright traumatizing scenarios Kline subjects Robert to. Hoo-boy, prepare to squirm in your seat.
Where Funny Pages lacks is in its writing, as Kline’s script is more about the pieces rather than the whole, leaving the plot to thrust ahead with the power of an undercooked noodle. Yes, there’s an ostensible arc to Funny Pages, but it’s more of a straight line in the case of Robert, with plenty of stops along the way that are simply to torment the viewer, losing itself in favor of the dimly lit games of the absurd and bleak. Kline’s a little too keen on squeezing his audience dry of cringe instead of where his film is going. Put it this way: Ever picture a three-panel comic strip where only the first two are filled in? No, right? Feels a little unsatisfying.
“Is style more important than soul?” asks Miles, Robert’s friend (and unrequited lover?) and fellow cartoonist at one point in all this carnage. Kline would answer no, I imagine, and you’d be heartless to disagree. While Funny Pages isn’t a polished product, there’s so much undeniable personality and outlook in Kline’s film that there’s so much promise for the future. There’s simply too much blood, sweat and ink in this film to deny, and while style can be honed, soul cannot.