Combustible Celluloid Review - Funny Pages (2022), Owen Kline, Owen Kline, Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel, Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais, Michael Townsend Wright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Marcia DeBonis, Cleveland Thomas Jr., Ron Rifkin
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel, Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais, Michael Townsend Wright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Marcia DeBonis, Cleveland Thomas Jr., Ron Rifkin
Written by: Owen Kline
Directed by: Owen Kline
MPAA Rating: R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief violent images
Running Time: 86
Date: 08/26/2022

Funny Pages (2022)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rare Mirth

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A feature writing and directing debut by Owen Kline (the child of Kevin Kline and actress Phoebe Cates), Funny Pages strongly evokes the films of Terry Zwigoff. We have the underground comix from Crumb, the dreary, soul-sucking suburban existence of Ghost World, and even the cynical Christmastime setting of Bad Santa. Mostly, the protagonist, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) resembles Max Minghella's Jerome in Art School Confidential; he's a spoiled, middle-class artistic hopeful that acts like a jerk to everyone and anyone, except those he thinks can help him.

But Funny Pages lacks the thing that makes Zwigoff's films so memorable and lovable, and a thing that's not so easy to define. In essence, it's humanity. All of Zwigoff's characters are flawed and nuanced, and they all — even Jerome — contain bits and pieces that are understandable and relatable. Even at their darkest — and Zwigoff's films can get dark — there's something touching about them. I can't really say the same for Funny Pages. In fact, the point of Funny Pages seems to be little more than provoking a strong response, most likely revulsion.

And, yet, ironically, I did admire certain sections of it. It has a lived-in grungy feeling, and its gritty realism is a marvel of seedy set design. Yet the characters are so icky as to be cartoonish. There's a distance between the two that's sometimes interesting, and sometimes off-putting. Sometimes it's like having alien visitors on earth, and other times, it gives you the feeling that you'd very much like to be someplace that these people are not.

In any case, Robert works in a comic book shop and has some talent for drawing lurid underground comix. His art teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), urges him to skip college and start submitting his work to publishers. The teacher then poses nude for Robert to draw. Robert abruptly leaves, and Katano follows, wondering if he crossed a line. But then there's an accident, and Katano is dead.

Given that Katano was the only person he looked up to and received encouragement from, Robert is distraught. He breaks into Katano's room to steal his artwork, lest it be thrown away, but Robert is caught and arrested. His public defender, Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis), gets him off easily, but Robert has made a decision.

He's going to quit school, find an apartment, and strike out on his own. He gets a job typing up notes for Cheryl, and finds the crappiest apartment you can imagine, in Trenton, in a windowless basement stiflingly hot from a boiler, and with fish tank filled with goopy green water, and heaven-knows-what living inside. He also must share it with two creepy old guys, Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) and Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr.). (He eventually catches them both masturbating to his collection of sex comix.)

Things take a turn when he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a client of Cheryl's, and discovers that Wallace used to work as a color separator on superhero stories for Image Comics. Despite Wallace's repugnant, explosive vibe, Robert makes it his personal quest to latch onto him in hopes of possibly learning something useful. This includes inviting Wallace to his family Christmas, which, perhaps not unexpectedly, turns out to be a rather terrible idea.

I think we can safely say that, aside from Robert and his parents, the movie is focused on what can be called "grotesques." It reminded me of movies like Gummo or Happiness, as well as certain titles by John Waters or David Lynch. But this movie doesn't seem to have any love for its characters. They're here to be leered at, or, in Robert's case, parodied in cruel drawings. (He even draws a nasty Wallace comic, despite trying to win the man's favor.) The movie might be trying to say something in the fact that the good-looking Robert is actually the worst person in the movie, but by the movie's lingering final shot, I wasn't able to place just what that something might be.

Ultimately, the movie really doesn't even seem to have much love for comics. From the mouths of several characters, just about everything that has ever been written or drawn in comic form throughout the course of history, from Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge to Todd McFarlane's Spawn, sucks. Even though I admired the attempt behind Funny Pages, I ultimately found that it's more of a pessimistic film than a film about pessimism. Count me out.

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