Owen Kline’s Funny Pages is not a cartoon, but its young hero, Robert, nevertheless comes off like a coyote on the run from the anvils threatening to fall on his head. His own ego is dropping the anvils. Robert, played by Daniel Zolghadri, is an 18-year-old wannabe comic artist, a promising young man who’s been given the leeway to dive into his own obsessions at the expense of most anything else, his fat imagination nourished by his job at a comic-book store, his subversive (read: dirty) mini comix cheered on from the sidelines by a beloved, inappropriate art teacher, his “future” basically boiled down to a choice between art school or no school at all. If he doesn’t go to college, it might in part be because his parents, Jennifer and Lewis (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais, respectively), are only too persuaded that he should. Robert, a suburban rebel, fashions himself too independent to do what his parents want. This kid who drinks orange juice out of the carton and looks like he’s never washed a dish in his life says he’d rather bus tables for little pay than ship straight off to college, and when his parents pooh-pooh the idea, he makes them feel like snobs.
Maybe they are. But Robert is still very much a teenager: excitable and immature, high on his own potential, blind to failure, willing to do whatever it takes only because he’s still ignorant of the humiliations of “doing whatever it takes.” He’s a talented artist. Given his subjects — graphic cartoon sex in which men’s hairy buttholes are more visible than women’s faces, for example — he seems to be destined for a more off-the-radar notoriety than the mainstream can stand, an underground, independent greatness. This suits him just fine — it almost makes him seem more mature, and you’d better believe that he knows as much.
Funny Pages, an itchy, smart, unpredictable portrait of a young artist, practically makes you see Robert with double vision. You’re watching the kid that Robert is while looking ahead to what kind of man he’ll become. The movie starts out feeling like your usual quirky coming-of-age indie, rife with the kind of character-building turns of fortune that whittle its young hero into his adult form. But Funny Pages at its best is a bit more off the rails than that, a bit more beholden to minor crises, excruciatingly awkward mishaps, and unexpected violence. Robert needs guidance, but his instincts keep leading him in silly directions, and his chosen mentors are, well, not so well-chosen. He’s flying as close to the sun as you would if you’d yet to learn that it burns.
Owen Kline’s script is boisterous, funny, and very much committed to the bit. This is a movie about junior independence, after all, about a slightly full-of-himself young talent who’s journeying out on his own for the first time. So Kline makes sure the journey is memorable. Robert moves out of his parents’ house in Princeton to live in a sketchy basement in Trenton with a pair of older, sweaty nerds. He picks up a job working for a legal aid (who thinks he’s an absolute delight) and earns a pittance, altogether trying to turn his back on the safety net of his upbringing. He’s good enough at what he does, and proud enough of himself for moving out, to become a little bit of a shit as a consequence, unsubtly fashioning himself superior to his friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), a fellow comics nerd, and leaning into this unglamorous taste of adulthood like a guy who’ll have a story to tell. He will.
Underground comics have long sought to remind us that everyday life can be weird, exciting, and gross. For all the exaggerated ugliness in the work of someone like R. Crumb, the edginess of it is, from a certain perspective, pretty honest, blurring the line between picking your nose, say, and making art out of picking your nose. Funny Pages is very much nose-picker cinema. It goes out of its way to see its characters in the most unvarnished, unfiltered light, closing in on bad skin and awkward haircuts and embarrassing masturbation rituals and squinty eyes that look extremely wet for no particular reason. Everyone in the world that Robert elects to become a part of is grotesque. The connection to Robert’s comics is obvious. This is the world that he’s trying to transform into his art. Truthfully, he doesn’t have to change very much: People are weird as is. But that’s also the point.
Big fistfuls of awkward drama and discomfort define this movie. Kline relishes the pleasurable grossness, dwelling in comedic scenes that end well beyond their punchlines. He labors to render Robert into a magnet for these lumpy interactions and the guileless eccentrics that populate them. These are Robert’s people. It’s the world that his comics are about. He seems destined to bridge the gap between the balls-scratching underworld of the comics that he loves and the plain suburban life that’s been handed to him by his parents. He’s trying to leave one for the other, but the movie finds ways to keep knocking him back toward the center. Not long after he moves out, Robert meets a man named Wallace (Matthew Maher), who’s got issues. Robert doesn’t seem hung up on that at first, though, because Wallace has worked as a cartoonist — Robert’s dream! He ostensibly has what Robert dares to call “industry ties.” In fact, the older man was only a colorist’s assistant. But in Robert’s world, that’s almost better: He’s able to think of Wallace as a journeyman, an expert at balancing creativity and talent with the kind of formalized, commercial polish you can only gain from working in the trenches for however many years.
Funny Pages isn’t a particularly mean movie, but it’s also not the kind of movie to let the stars in Robert’s eyes survive the 90-minute runtime. Though it encourages you to look ahead to Robert’s future, it also foregrounds the most dire options. Is Robert going to be a big-deal outsider artist like the Crumb immortalized in Crumb, or maybe the more groomed, monied, acceptably edgy version played by Anders Danielsen Lie in The Worst Person In the World? Or is he going to be like Wallace: angry, practical, thrown out of whack by some young nobody’s admiration? Funny Pages doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that’s going to teach its hero a lesson, but confronting Robert with an idea of his future that looks more like a non-future is on the verge of one.
It’s also zany, memorable, and packed with off-the-cuff ideas. “You’re obsessed with my failure,” Wallace screams toward the end, and it’s hard to dispute the point. Watching Funny Pages, it’s also hard to avoid sharing in that obsession. People are incredibly odd. How can you help but look?