TThere are pros and cons of bringing an innovative vision to filmmaking. On the plus side, you might give viewers something they’ve never seen before. They might also question their desire to see it. In writer-director Owen Kline’s modest, assertively offbeat feature debut The Funny Pages a precocious teenage cartoonist drops out of high school to focus on his drawing, to which he’s obsessively dedicated. He moves out of his parents’ super-cushy Princeton, New Jersey, home and into a highly peculiar roommate situation in a disheveled Trenton basement. The movie’s humor is Pixy Stix-dry; there’s little that’s cute or endearing about either the film overall or Kline’s main character, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri)—and that’s a plus. But Funny PagesStill feels small and barely shaped. Well-observed details are great, but they’ll only take you so far.
At least Robert isn’t your run-of-the-mill disaffected kid. He is bright and determined, but he also has a deep hatred for art. Instead, he draws inspiration from the 1970s and the Tijuana Bibles. His best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), a lanky, shy, acne-ridden kid who radiates gentle sweetness, shares Robert’s enthusiasms, and may also be a little bit in love with him.
But Robert seems to be outgrowing everything around him, including Miles’ friendship. Robert’s art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) is the one person he truly respects. The movie ends very quickly, with him resigning from this life in an old black-comedy scene. Robert has nothing but contempt for his parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia), seeing them as bourgeois and controlling even though it’s clear they’ve given him everything. (In the movie’s most crushing scene, Robert unwraps a comic-related box set his mother has carefully chosen for him as a Christmas gift and remarks that it’s useless to him because he has all the originals; the look on her face tells you both how much she loves this kid and how much it hurts her that he’s turned into such a pain in the ass.) Cheryl, played by Marcia DeBonis’ wonderful character actor Marcia DeBonis, is the only adult that seems to get him. She takes his case even though his parents hired an expensive lawyer.
Kicking away from everything that’s comfortable and safe, and ignoring his parents’ entreaties to stay in school, Robert strikes out on his own, working part-time at his favorite comic-book store and also doing some office work for Cheryl. It’s in her office that he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a loose-cannon oddball who, Robert learns, used to work as an assistant colorist at one of the comic-book publishers he reveres. Robert becomes captivated by Wallace, a guy who is unable to keep it all together. Robert’s understanding of Wallace’s reality is warped, and he doesn’t have such a great grasp on his own, either. Kline is able to see that Robert’s fall is his own fault.
Kline might still find it a bit too easy to sympathize with his callow, hapless hero. Robert is played by Zolghadri as an insecure, know-it all naif. But beneath the cockiness you can still feel his vulnerability. It’s easy to feel something for him—he clearly has no idea what he’s doing—but he does begin to wear out his welcome as a character. At one point Robert’s father, having reached the end of his fuse, appends some choice expletives to his assessment of his son’s rebellion: “You’re a spoiled brat, and that’s all that this is.” It’s the movie’s hallelujah moment. Kline also isn’t sure where to put the camera, how to move it or where to let it linger. Robert takes Miles seriously about his acne and chides him for eating greasy foods. Kline’s camera lingers long and close on Miles’ mottled cheek, as if to make sure we get the point.
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Kline could be said to want to represent the absolute reality. But there’s also something to be said for using discretion and a little kindness in how you present your characters. Kline has a gift for eccentric comic touches—there’s a great sight gag involving an aquarium fish who’s gone AWOL—and an awareness of how youthful passions can either blossom into genius or merely create unbearable gasbags whose heads are filled with trivia of questionable value. But how you’re communicating matters just as much as what you’re saying. At one point Miles asks, pleadingly, “Is form really more important than soul?” It isn’t. But creating a shape for your ideas never hurts—it’s like building a little house for the soul to live in. This is true for movies as well.
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