At some point in “Funny Pages,” a calculated and abrasive portrayal of the comic book artist as a young man, I lost count of exactly how many characters I had imagined falling off a cliff.
I don’t mean that in a bad way, entirely. Sympathetic characters are so present in so many films, especially American films, that it can be refreshing to meet a few of them. And really, a fatal fall would hardly be the worst fall in a film that continually descends to Wile E. Coyote levels of slapstick violence.
In the opening scene, an after-school art lesson goes awry, sending student Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) fleeing into the night while his passionate teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis) meets an untimely end. .
Nothing good, it seems, comes from encouraging young people. Robert, a gifted teenage cartoonist, is hit hard by the death of his mentor, and it hastens his departure from the cozy suburb of Princeton, NJ, and sends him down a rabbit hole of nerd-tacular intrigue.
For years he was revered on the altar of great American cartoonists and dreamed of joining their ranks. He spends most of his time hanging out year-round at the acne convention which is his local vintage comic book store, eschewing the superhero fandom that passes for the geek these days chasing d purer, more artisanal fanaticism.
To that end, he also produces his own artfully raw drawings, some of which draw on the absurdity of his own life and some of which mimic the pen-and-ink pornography of old-school “Tijuana Bibles.” , with their randy tales and exaggerated genitalia.
A catchy debut for its 30-year-old screenwriter and director, Owen Kline, “Funny Pages” draws its gritty energy from the heyday of underground comics of the 1970s and also the crudely cut indie films that proliferated during that time. . While the yellowish worldview of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar weighs heavily on Robert’s work, the spirits of John Cassavetes and Jerry Schatzberg sometimes haunt the unglamorous faces and ramshackle locations of this film, as well as the super 16mm footage. inelegant features of Hunter Zimny’s cinematography.
At the same time, Kline’s sensibility also feels shaped by more recent strains of cutting-edge American cinema, namely the jagged odysseys of Josh and Benny Safdie (“Good Time”) and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”), all three are credited as producers here.
“Funny Pages,” in other words, isn’t here to solicit anyone’s affection or fulfill expectations other than their own. Something similar could be said of Robert, who, disregarding the warnings of his upper-middle-class parents (quite likeable Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais), drops out of high school, buys a rickety car, and follows his artistic impulses everywhere. where they could drive.
Shortly after, they drive him to Trenton, where he moves into a squalid, ungross-looking basement apartment occupied by a couple of creeps (Michael Townsend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr.), resulting in plenty of eyebrow-raising close-ups. sweaty and dirty fingernails. . The grotesque is not only exaggerated, it is practically in the nose.
If Kline’s cinema seems to wear its grotty realism on its sleeve, its plot has a playful character, anything goes. The story takes its most contrived turn when Robert lands a part-time job in a public defender’s office. It’s there that he meets Wallace (a terrifying Matthew Maher), an embittered curmudgeon with a violent streak and, it turns out, a long career as a color splitter for famed Image Comics. Could this guy be the mentor that replaces Robert’s beloved teacher and steers him towards the career of his dreams? All it takes is one look at Wallace’s misanthropic gaze to know the answer.
But Robert is too blinded by his ambition to care. As he tries to ingratiate himself with Wallace, he unleashes a series of tense and wacky shenanigans involving a pharmacy (keep an eye out for the great Louise Lasser) and, less convincingly, a hellish Christmas morning at home that , one way or another, does not end with Robert sent to military school. But then, he is used to rubbing shoulders with charm as well as talent.
Portrayed by Zolghadri (“Eighth Grade”), he projects more charisma and social intelligence than some of his comic book-loving brethren, especially his sweetly awkward best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), whom he doesn’t care about. relentlessly takes for his clumsiness. drawing style.
“You have to be harder on yourself,” Robert tells Miles, which is definitely good advice for an artist, but also a sign that he’s let his motivation overshadow his decency. Or it could just be that Robert was always a monumental brat, someone who now temporarily slips the knot of his pampered upbringing to descend, for creative inspiration, into someone else’s lower depths.
You suspect Kline has first-hand knowledge of what he’s trying to confuse, and not just from his own experience as a cartoonist. He is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he starred in a few films as a child, including playing the younger of two misfit brothers in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”
In “Funny Pages,” a corrosive comedy of artistic aspiration and failure, he seems to be working overtime to weed out any trace of optimism or seriousness from Robert’s journey. He wants to elicit your laughter and horror at the sheer futility of his efforts.
Mission accomplished, I guess. But “Funny Pages” itself sometimes feels like an out-of-place artistic exercise, an overly precocious stab from a brutally cynical student. His biggest laughs, which tend to go hand in hand with his nastiest gasps, seem to stem less from any recognizable emotional or situational reality than from a filmmaker’s desire to shock and humiliate his characters, to put them in multiple taken up in the wringer.
Perhaps that cruelty means evoking that brooding sensibility of Crumb, to render a worldview from the yellowish perspective of Robert’s deservedly idols. But you can believe in Robert – his talent, at least – without quite believing the weird and ugly story he finds himself in.
Evaluation: R, for coarse sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief violent images
Operating time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Begins August 26 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Downtown Los Angeles