At a sure factor in “Funny Pages,” a calculatedly abrasive portrait of the comic-book artist as a younger man, I misplaced rely on precisely how many of its characters I’d anticipated falling off a cliff.
I don’t imply that in a terrible way, entirely. Blandly likable characters are such a given in so many movies, in particular American movies, that it can be a tonic to stumble upon a few flat-out repellent ones. And really, a deadly fall would infrequently be the nastiest punchline in a film that consistently falls lower back on Wile E. Coyote tiers of slapstick violence.
In the opening scene, an after-school artwork lesson goes comically awry, sending the student, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), fleeing into the nighttime whilst his doting instructor (Stephen Adly Guirgis) meets a premature end.
Nothing good, it seems, comes of encouraging the young. Robert, a proficient teenage cartoonist, is hit tough by means of his mentor’s death, and it accelerates his departure from cozy Princeton, N.J., suburbia and sends him down a rabbit gap of nerd-tacular intrigue.
For years he’s worshiped at the altar of brilliant American cartoonists and dreamed of becoming a member of their ranks. He spends most of his time striking out at the year-round pimples conference that is his nearby antique comics store, shunning the superhero fandom that passes for mainstream geekery presently in pursuit of a purer, greater artisanal fanaticism.
To that end, he additionally churns out his personal artfully crude drawings, some of which draw notions from the absurdity of his personal lifestyles and some of which mimic the pen-and-ink pornography of old-school “Tijuana bibles,” with their randy testimonies and exaggerated genitalia.
An attention-grabbing debut for its 30-year-old author and director, Owen Kline, “Funny Pages” attracts its cranky-grungy strength from the Seventies heyday of underground comics and also from the rough-hewn unbiased movies that proliferated throughout that period. If the jaundiced worldview of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar looms closely over Robert’s work, the spirits of John Cassavetes and Jerry Schatzberg occasionally hang out this movie’s unglamorous faces and rundown locations, and additionally the inelegant Super 16-millimeter frames of Hunter Zimny’s cinematography.
At the identical time, Kline’s sensibility feels equally formed through extra latest lines in contemporary American cinema, specifically the jagged gutter odysseys of Josh and Benny Safdie (“Good Time”) and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”), all three of whom are credited as producers here.
Is the embittered Wallace (Matthew Maher, left) the mentor that Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) seeks?
“Funny Pages,” in different words, is no longer out to solicit anyone’s affection or measure up to any expectations however it’s own. Something comparable should be stated of Robert, who, spurning the warnings of his upper-middle-class dad and mom (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais, totally sympathetic), drops out of excessive school, buys a rickety automobile and follows his inventive impulses anywhere they may lead.
Before lengthy they lead him to Trenton, the place he strikes into a disgustingly airless, squalid basement condo occupied by a couple of creeps (Michael Townsend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr.), occasioning many stomach-churning close-ups of sweaty brows and filthy toenails. The grotesquerie isn’t simply over-the-top, it’s virtually up-your-nose.
If Kline’s filmmaking looks to put on its grotty realism on its sleeve, his plotting has a shambling, anything-goes playfulness. The story takes its most contrived flip when Robert lands a part-time job at a public defender’s office. That’s the place he meets Wallace (a terrifying Matthew Maher), an embittered grouch with a violent streak and, it turns out, a long-ago profession as a shade separator for the famed Image Comics. Could this man be the mentor who replaces Robert’s cherished trainer and steers him toward the profession of his dreams? All it takes is one seems to be at Wallace’s misanthropic scowl to comprehend the answer.
But Robert is too blinded by his ambition to care. As he tries to ingratiate himself with Wallace, he units in movement a sequence of tense, farcical shenanigans involving a pharmacy (keep your eye out for the terrific Louise Lasser) and, less persuasively, a hellish Christmas morning at domestic that in some way doesn’t give up with Robert getting carted off to army school. But then, he’s used to coasting on allure as properly as talent.
As performed through Zolghadri (“Eighth Grade”), he initiatives extra charisma and social smarts than some of his comic-book-loving brethren, specifically his sweetly awkward excellent friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), whom he choices on relentlessly for his clumsy drawing style.
“You’ve obtained to be more difficult on yourself,” Robert tells Miles, which is surely a sound recommendation for an artist if additionally a signal that he’s allowed his pressure to eclipse his decency. Or it should simply be that Robert’s usually been a monumentally entitled brat, any person who’s now quickly slipping the knot of his coddled upbringing to descend, for innovative inspiration, into any individual else’s decrease depths.
You suspect that Kline has some firsthand expertise of what he’s making an attempt to skewer, and no longer simply due to the fact of his very own journey as a cartoonist. He’s the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he acted in a few films as a child, most quite taking part in the youth of two misfit brothers in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”
In “Funny Pages,” a corrosive comedy of creative aspiration and failure, he looks to be working additional time to strip away even the slightest patina of optimism or earnestness from Robert’s journey. He needs to elicit your laughter and horror at the sheer futility of his striving.
Mission accomplished, I guess. But “Funny Pages” itself now and again feels like an exercise in misplaced artistry, a student’s overly precocious stab at brutish cynicism. Its largest laughs, which have a tendency to go hand-in-hand with its meanest jolts, appear to occur less from any recognizable emotional or situational actuality than from a filmmaker’s want to shock and humiliate his characters, to put them over and over via the wringer.
Perhaps that ruthlessness ability to evoke that glum Crumb sensibility, to render an imaginative and prescient of the world from the jaundiced point of view of Robert’s justly storied idols. But you can agree with Robert — his talent, at least — barring pretty believing the strange, unpleasant story he finds himself in.