‘Funny Pages’ is a darkly hilarious comic comedy from the promising protege of the Safdie Brothers

All anyone knows about Owen Kline, whose directorial debut premiered yesterday at Cannes, is that he is the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and that he starred in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale like a child – so it’s fitting that Funny pages features a character trying to break free from his parents’ influence, and includes a starkly hilarious masturbation scene. Kline’s film, an A24 joint produced by the Safdies, is confident and funny, an almost mind-boggling indie film whose humor and lack of stars are captivating.

Funny pages– an appropriately flat title for this sombre comedy of manners – is the story of a young man, Robert), who works in a comic book store and dreams of a career as a cartoonist. Against the wishes of his wealthy parents that he go to college, Robert takes a job as a clerk in a crappy law firm, rents a filthy shared apartment with two sweaty old bozos in a shabby neighborhood and focuses on his drawing. In the course of his typing job, the teen comes into contact with Wallace – essentially Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons– a weird and aggressive, possibly mentally retarded man who worked as a colorist for a cult comic. The erratic, absurd relationship between the two, which doesn’t follow the course you’d expect, makes up most of the film.

For his first film, Kline has taken a stubbornly unusual course – similar to his protagonist, who turns down the clear path that has been mapped out for him. The characters here, filmed at a pore-grabbing distance by cinematographer Sean Price Williams in a grainy print, are so many misfits and outcasts; it feels remarkable for an American movie in 2022 that no one here is stunning, and several people are what would be considered ugly. The ghost of Robert Crumb looms in this movie where Kline takes great pleasure in his characters’ unruly hair, bulging eyes, big tits and bad skin: a scene where Robert sketches a loving cartoon of his lawyer in thanks for her work, all flesh and frizzy hair, feels like a simulacrum of Kline’s process here. The characters outlined in this film also have a suitably cartoonish nature, along the lines of: American splendor Perhaps: These people are types, and therefore have a right not to behave according to conventional psychology in Kline’s clever scenario, which is often outrageously funny.

The humor seen here – because Funny pages is a comedy – is naughty and then suddenly baroque openly. Kline wrings quite a few guts out of Wallace’s character, whose paranoia and frankness hilariously rub against our young protagonist’s pompous idealism. In one scene, Robert and a comic book-loving friend question Wallace about his past work in comic books, speaking of their own influences in an attempt to open him up, causing him to cry out in exasperation:The Scrooge McDuck series “Ducktales was intended for 10-year-olds in the 50s! The only people reading that now are perverts and pedophiles!” Wallace has no understanding of the modern world, of the cultural revisionism that Robert and his colleagues have begun in recent years. Similarly, Kline clears up the divisions between Robert and his parents for a painful sort of hilarity — as in a scene where Robert returns home alone on Christmas Day to see his parents, whom he otherwise treats with cruel disdain, causing his mother to snap: “Have you come back to get your presents?” and Robert to reply, “I came back for the pancakes.”

The comedy here alternates lambent and rococo, foreshadowing a fine finale in which Robert invites Wallace to his parents’ house for Christmas, which goes as well as you’d expect.

Daniel Zolghadri and Matthew Maher perfectly play the roles of Robert and Wallace who don’t fit together. Zolghadri is alternately short and hesitant, showing someone finding themselves as they go along, and Maher portraying Wallace in a seething silence and weltschmerz outbursts. There’s a particularly beautiful, hilarious set piece in which Wallace tries to enlist Robert’s help in a petty feud he has with a local pharmacist, which beautifully illustrates their dynamics: Robert somehow idolizes this man’s nightmare , and Wallace who becomes engrossed in his own bizarre life, leading to a disaster involving a plastic toy horse. The comedy here alternates lambent and rococo, foreshadowing a fine finale in which Robert invites Wallace to his parents’ house for Christmas, which goes as well as you’d expect.

Sometimes Kline loses some control over his characters (there’s a little too much shouting in the last part, as the director amplifies the comedy of manners) and it has to be said that Funny pages is ultimately – and you’re welcome – a very small object. But the course the young director has charted for himself, and the shrewd way he paints his riotous bunch of outsiders, are promising.

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