For the first time, nerds are seen—and smelled—in Funny Pages.
In a story so vividly unpleasant that it should have stink lines, Owen Kline’s portrayal of comics-obsessed losers surpasses American Splendor and Ghost World.
This generation has been duped. Deprogramming will take years to undo the damage. We’ve gone way beyond the concept of “hip to be square” to create a zeitgeist where being a “nerd” elicits cheers and acceptance after a decade and a half of Marvel films dominating popular culture and a cascade of other IP derived from comics slipping in through the door they’ve bashed open. This is a made-up story. (Like the most popular movie franchise of all time does not qualify as being nerdy.)
Those of us who are familiar with true social barnacles—the unwashed, unacceptable, and unwelcome losers who grow like mould in comic book shops—know that this world has never been adequately represented on film. (You pushed the needle, American Splendor, but everyone in that is far too presentable.) Funny Pages is the first film to delve into the long box’s dark, howling abyss.
Funny Pages, Owen Kline’s first feature film, is not a dramatic masterpiece, but its setting, tone, look, feel, and casting would send true comic book geeks cartwheeling—if only we had the coordination. Instead, they’ll have to sit there with their mouths open, drooling, thinking, “I feel seen.”
Funny Pages recognises that being truly committed to comics, the lowest form of the arts (aside from performance poetry, of course), is an express ticket to a life of social misery and alienation. The best you can hope for is to spend time in the back of the store with other misfits, ranting about esoteric subjects that no one with a family or a real job could ever care about. The true marvel is seeing the pig without its lipstick, especially as Disney+ forces-feeds mass culture more watered-down superhero product.
Nobody in Funny Pages is particularly fond of superheroes. It’s the hardcore stuff—underground filth like Zap Comix, MAD Magazine, or King Features Syndicate’s strips—that fuels their misguided zeal. Outside of Popeye, Dick Tracy, and Scrooge McDuck, most of the references will be lost on the average person. Sure, you could call these people “gatekeepers,” but there’s only one problem: who in their right mind would try to get in?
The plot of Funny Pages is extremely thin, but what there is follows the coming-of-age map. Our shrimpy hero, Robert, is played by Daniel Zolghadri, a college senior who should be going to art school (he’s an amazing cartoonist). Mr. Katano, an unconventional art teacher at his Princeton, New Jersey (e.g. wealthy) high school, is his mentor (Stephen Adly Guirgis). Mr. Katano encourages Robert to always be honest and to seek the truth, and then disrobes so his pupil can get a good look at a distended, rotund stomach, wobbly scrotum, and shrivelled male sex organ. (By the way, this is at school; this teacher should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
Mr. Katano dies in a freak accident that isn’t entirely Robert’s fault, but isn’t entirely his fault either. Robert decides to drop out of school, leave home, and move into a repulsive (illegal) apartment in Trenton, New Jersey, shared with two shockingly grotesque older men (e.g. poor).
The horrors of that apartment must be seen to be believed, but our young hero eventually meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a possible sociopath who used to work in the comics industry. (He divided the colours for Image.) Wallace is a celebrity to Robert and his acne-ridden pal Miles, as well as a possible path to a real career in the world of illustration. But, to Kline’s credit, he tells it like it is: this man is a disaster, and there will be no bonding road trip in their future. Following your dreams will only lead to heartbreak. “Not everyone has the opportunity to be an artist!” During the film’s climax, Wallace yells. It’s a welcome reprieve after watching 500,000 movies and television shows about believing in your dreams.
Failure is a subject rarely addressed in film. Who could possibly want to watch it? All we have to do to look at disgrace is look in the mirror, right? But Owen Kline managed to pull it off. In its bleakness and pitch black hilarity, the 30-year-old director, who you may remember as the younger sibling in The Squid And The Whale (and, it’s worth noting, is the to-the-manor-born child of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), has created something extraordinary here. Tell Terry Zwigoff the news, Todd Solondz.
The film is produced by the Safdie Brothers (Kline worked on their shorts as a teen), and it has the same verisimilitude as Ronald Bronstein’s films, which are also seen here. You can smell this movie from the casting, the locations, the use of Super 16mm stock, and the emphasis on close-ups.
Unfortunately, the ending does not connect with me, but complaining about it feels greedy. This is a film in which Ron Rifkin, Louise Lasser, Andy Milonakis, and one of the Uncut Gems brothers with the crazy hair all make brief appearances. I’ll be over with Funny Pages’ equivalent of movie buffs, rambling about how fantastic that is.