Friday, August 26, 2022

Funny Pages, Inspired by Underground Comix

If you are an anti-social misanthrope who enjoys laughing at other people’s freakish misfortunes, you are probably a consumer of underground comix, from the likes of R. Crumb. Nobody is forcing you. Of course, most fans like young Robert are convinced there are great truths in those baroquely gross pages. He has a talent for drawing comics like his idols, but not for healthy human relationships, as we see in painful detail throughout Owen Kline’s wince-inducing Funny Pages, which opens today in New York.

Mr. Kitano, Robert’s high school art teacher, always got him. Unfortunately, he is killed in a freak accident, after an awkward nude modeling incident with his student. You can tell right from the start this film will spare us nothing.

In defiance of his conventional parents, Robert announces he will pass on college, to pursue a career in comics. He will not be living under their roof either, to prevent them from playing that parental card. Since his only income comes from part-time work at the comic book store, Robert takes a shared room in an illegal basement apartment in Trenton, with two old perverts. What he really needs is a mentor and thinks he might have found one in Wallace, a former color-separator from Image Comics. Unfortunately, Wallace is an on-spectrum neurotic with impulse control issues that border on psychosis.

Funny Pages
is unpleasant, but that certainly makes it true to the spirit of the underground comix that partially inspired it. Kline and his cast make Ghost World look innocent and uplifting. As result, the film hardly feels like any sort of love letter to comics—more like an indictment.

Daniel Zolghari is relentlessly abrasive and charmless as Robert. That means the young thesp takes direction well, but that doesn’t make his performance any easier to watch. Matthew Maher is also spectacularly ticky and creepy as Wallace, which is definitely something.

Frankly, viewers will feel the greatest empathy for Robert’s long-suffering childhood friend Miles, played with keen sensitivity by Miles Emanuel and best identify with his frustrated parents, who come across as the film’s most realistic characters, thanks to the grounded performances of Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais.

In fact, Robert’s parents are right. He will indeed leave them with a giant mess to clean up. Perhaps
Funny Pages would have worked better if Kline had flipped it, to focus on parents struggling to deal with a creative but self-destructive problem child. Those who share Robert’s fascination with the grungy and the grotesque will probably build Funny Pages into a cult favorite, but us mere mortals do not need to wallow in its mean-spiritedness. It takes the audience on a hard ride that never really goes anywhere. Not recommended, Funny Pages opens today (8/26) at Film at Lincoln Center.