Director: Owen Kline
Stars: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Stephen Adly Guirgis
It’s funny how two movies often come out at the same time that ostensibly cover the same or similar material. A kind of strange happenstance. This weekend UK cinemas have been subjected to Kevin Smith’s self-consuming Clerks III. But also, if you look closer, Owen Kline’s infinitely superior Funny Pages.
At first flush they might not seem all that related. One is a tired retread of convenience store slackerdom from the bitter obsolescence of middle age. The other a sparky, scuzzy depiction of a young cartoonist at the start of his career. Where’s the connection?
But both these movies – which wear their respective obnoxious tendencies as badges of honour – doff their proverbial caps to the art and pain of creating from disparate nooks of distinctly American subcultures. For Smith that means the margins of New Jersey suburbia where Star Wars and Marvel have strip-mined original thought and inspiration. For Kline it’s a similar landscape not so far away (geographically we’re in Trenton, Pennsylvania), but which has spiritually birthed the likes of Daniel Clowes, Harvey Pekar and the Safdie Brothers.
Benny and Josh Safdie are producers of Kline’s picture, which sees young artist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) grappling to find the confidence and wherewithal to go forward in a society that frowns greatly on underground comics and their surrounding circus of malcontents. His teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), tells Robert from the outset to “always subvert”; a mandate that Robert seems eager to follow to the end. Still in his teens, Robert strives to push against the grain wherever he can, rebelling against his parents and the ordered world in general. He’s a classic type. A Holden Caulfield for our times.
The general malaise of modern youth culture is subtly written into Funny Pages. On finding a box of letters written to the future selves of his graduating class, Robert muses, “I hope there’ll be a post office in twenty years”. A small, underplayed line that speaks to a genuine sense of no future dogging the emerging generation.
For a while each generation has had some semblance of this feeling. Gen X. Millennials. Each time with a greater sense of reality. For Gen Z, the inevitability of societal collapse – via global warming, poverty, scarcity of resources, fascism, all of the above – feels like a reality that’s fast closing doors. To young people like Robert, “what is the point?” is a serious existential and practical question. Robert finds glee and escapism in his cartoons, but also an avenue to make his own sardonic statements on the world.
Robert may be a jerk sometimes, but he’s also passionate and observant. Inquisitive and, himself, funny. In his travels, he finds himself navigating a world populated almost exclusively by sad, lonely or outcast men; an equivalent (but more diverse) ragtag community one might liken to the aging delinquents of the View Askew universe. Unlike Smith’s characters, however, Kline’s are rarely if ever treated with disdain by their creator. Rather they’re portrayed as unusual but humane and sympathetic oddballs. Their tastes may be subversive but, by and large, they’re sensitive souls.
The mark of the Safdies is indeed all over this. If Kline initially seems to lack their sense of hyperactivity and acute anxiety, he turns out to be merely biding his time. More immediately he evidences a kindred fondness for everyday weirdos. Working at the local courthouse, Robert comes into contact with a former colourist, Wallace (Matthew Maher), who coerces him into a zany scheme of retribution against a seemingly random pharmacist. In response, Wallace is invited to an increasingly unhinged family Christmas; an extended third act that is reminiscent of Noah Baumbach’s wonderful Mistress America in its riotous spiral of domestic absurdity.
Line deliveries throughout are sharp, jagged, genuinely funny. Funny Pages has an acerbic quality and staccato rhythm that matches it’s aesthetic griminess. Humdrum seediness coats the picture like a film of oil, as Kline documents a world that can be both absurdly humorous and infinitely sad in the same moment. With the choice of the two on full display, Kline encourages us toward the former gaze. This is the same sense of fondness that buoys his picture and places it in favourable relief when set beside Smith’s.
Let’s cease these comparisons, because truly this is a picture that stands comfortably by itself. Ultimately there’s an earthen quality to Funny Pages that makes even its most tweaked moments feel ripped from the seams of reality. Maybe the greatest act of subversion going on here is Kline’s observation that the seemingly humdrum world around us is just as resplendent with oddities as it has always been. Just as capable of inspiring as it’s always been. Small in scale but wild of heart, Funny Pages assures us that there’s still life – and dirt and grit – in the US indie scene.