Given the nature of his memorable role in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid in the Whale, it’s no surprise that former child actor Owen Kline’s feature debut as a writer-director would be such a bizarre, grimy, sleazy coming-of-age tale. What is perhaps more surprising about crusty cult comedy Funny Pages is how Kline seems to have arrived with such a fully-formed and expertly executed vision, resulting in a film that’s so resolutely strange that it feels genuinely subversive in the current cinematic landscape.
The film focuses on Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), an aspiring comic artist raised more on the crude ‘toons of R. Crumb than the flashy superheroes of Stan Lee. Kline establishes what kind of movie he’s making early on as Robert’s bulbous, middle-aged mentor Mr. Katano strips to his birthday suit and encourages his student to draw his lumpen form in all its glory. As a scene, it’s off-kilter, absurd, uncomfortable, and hilarious; essentially the film in microcosm.
Mr. Katano encourages Robert to forego the art school route and to send his cartoons – ironic portraits of grotesque figures engaging in explicit sex acts – to publishers instead. Coming from a mundane middle-class home, Robert is enamoured with the idea of forging his own path in the arts and decides to leave home and move into what is surely the worst apartment known to man. Kline’s sense of place and mood is on full display in the scenes set in this grotty hovel, a dingy basement apartment with a clanking boiler and a glistening sheen coating every surface, including the skin of Barry (Michael Townsend Wright), the sweaty, awkward landlord. The stench of this gruesome dwelling practically leaps off the screen, immersing us in the bleak world Kline has created but also framing Robert’s manufactured struggle, a privileged suburbanite slumming it out of some romantic notion of what an artist’s life should be.
After taking a job with a public defender, Robert meets Wallace (Matthew Maher) who, as luck would have it, was once a colour separatist for a big-name comic house. Robert sees Wallace as his way into the industry and becomes embroiled in his life, only to discover that Wallace is unstable and prone to violent outbursts. It becomes evident pretty quickly that Wallace isn’t the mentor that Robert is looking for, but Wallace’s presence and the dynamic between the two adds a whole new level to the film. Maher’s performance is electric, a wild-eyed, darkly comedic turn that in a different set of hands might have headed towards some redemption; with Maher and Kline, Wallace starts off unsettling and only gets worse.
With its grainy, VHS sheen and oddball sensibilities, Funny Pages feels like a throwback to the independent films of the ‘90s. Though the obvious comparison point is Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, you could also draw a line to the likes of Clerks and Slacker, imbued with Kline’s own subversive sense of humour, resulting in a compelling coming-of-age comedy that leaves you feeling in desperate need of a shower.