It’s entirely possible that the universe was trying to tell Robert something, and he missed the traumatic and obvious sign it gave him in the opening of “Funny Pages.”
Robert, played by Daniel Zolghadri, is a cocky, indulged high school cartoonist with dreams of Mad Magazine glory. We meet the hero of our story at a mentoring session in which his cartoonist/cartoon historian high school teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis) has praised Robert to the high heavens and told him he’s “already at a professional level” with his drafting, artwork and comic strip/comic book wit.
“College?” It could very well “ruin” him.
But as that session comes to an awkward close, Robert causes his mentor’s gruesome death. Maybe this adult world of adult cartoon humor, the people who create it and the people who consume it, isn’t the right path to go down.
“Funny Pages” follows Robert as he follows that “forget college” advice and his dream, gets in trouble with the law, finds work and gets a dose of supporting himself on a pittance. He will live through his art, feeding on the the Fellini grotesques of his corner of New Jersey. Wild hair, exaggerated noses or ears, pot bellies and bizarre personality quirks and perversions in real life are fodder for his art.
He could be the next R. Crumb, and he’s sure of it. Almost everybody he meets encourages his “Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant” level genius.
Bit player turned first time feature writer-director Owen Kline takes us into a “Ghost World” of the comic book store of pop culture lore, filled with oddballs, obsessives, the obese and the acned, the whitest white kids — and adults — you know.
Kline leans into the stereotypes and leads us into the darker recesses of lonerdom as Princeton-pampered Robert dismisses his parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais), drops out of high school and moves into a hellish dump of an apartment in Trenton.
Robert rudely dismisses the crude efforts of his fellow comic-obsessive and would-be artist pal Miles (Miles Emmanuel) and starts selling off his comic collection to supplement his two part time jobs — at The Garage Comics store and as a transcriptionist for the lawyer (Marcia DeBonis) who kept him out of jail.
And he shows off his work and the pornographic “Tijuana bibles” to the creepy confirmed bachelors (Michael Townsend Wright, Cleveland Thomas) he rents a bed from, judging that this is exactly the sort of stuff they’d be into. Eventually he meets someone new to idolize, a former comic book industry insider (Matthew Maher).
Eighteen is not too young to learn the lesson, “Never meet your heroes.”
Kline goes for cringe-worthy characters and cringy laughs of the R. Crumb variety, and Maher, a veteran supporting player often typecast in scary or instant-impression “fringe” character roles (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Wonder Wheel,” “Marriage Story”) is the source of most of those intensely discomfiting chuckles.
This “Wallace” fellow, a former artist who used to work in “color separating” in the inking of comic books, is eccentric beyond eccentric, bitter and wrapped too tight. He becomes Maher’s tour de force. Wallace’s insecurities are many, his “triggers,” the things that set him off, many more.
Kline presents us with a coming-of-age story, or an artist finding his voice tale, and never quite delivers either. As an actor, he once worked with Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), and “Funny Pages” has a bit of Baumach’s funny-not-funny ear mixed in with Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” “harmless” screwballs-who-might be dangerous vibe.
He’s found a fascinating subculture to take us into, settled on a hero to take on a quest through it. And then he kind of lost the thread, if not his nerve. Whatever the universe was telling Kline, the message or warning got a little muddled in translation.
Rating: R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief violent images.
Cast: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Maria Dizzia, Miles Emanuel, Josh Pais, Marcia DeBonis, Michael Townsend Wright, Cleveland Thomas, Jr., Stephen Adly Guirgis and Ron Rifkin
Credits: Scripted and directed by Owen Kline. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:26