The grittiness of Sean Price Williams’ cinematography and atmosphere carries Owen Kline’s Funny Pages, but the rest falters – a coming-of-age feature lacking focus, coherence, and laughter.
In the past couple of years, A24 has been the home for filmmakers (such as Ari Aster, Rose Glass, Bo Burnham, and Robert Eggers) to deliver their excellent directorial debuts. And although the latest entry into this eclectic selection, Owen Kline’s dark comedy and coming-of-age film Funny Pages, comes with the Sadie Brothers’ stamp of approval and received plenty of acclaim straight up from its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (which screened off competition, at the Director’s Fortnight), it ends up being a vastly unfunny and disappointing affair. There are plenty of things to admire from this debut, but, for the most part, it feels directionless and too sloppy for its own good. There’s a line early in the film said by ‘’s character, Cheryl, the lawyer, that marks the attitude and persona of Funny Pages leading man, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri). “I admire your independence.”
This line stuck with me throughout the movie because it reflects the crux of the coming-of-age narrative and the down-and-dirty filmmaking techniques used by Owen Kline and the crew. After his favorite teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), tragically dies in a car crash in front of him, teenage cartoonist Robert (Zolghadri) decides to take matters into his own hands: he quits school and he decides that he won’t go to college and will chase his artistic dreams. He starts by moving out of his parent’s house and getting a car (la ‘cucaracha’, which is Spanish for cockroach), which is harder than he might imagine since Robert doesn’t have any sense of income. Robert works at a comic-book store and as a public defender. In both jobs, he meets various characters that create weird scenarios that don’t fit quite well with the narrative at hand. His plans are essentially misguided and erroneous, creating a contrast with Funny Pages’ quickly paced and somewhat hectic development.
Funny Pages is a story of a renegade rejecting the comforts of his suburban life, in which he seems pretty unhappy, to go and achieve a quest that speaks to his soul – the aching of his dirty comic-book art to see the light of day. Owen Kline has a vision for what he wants to do with his directorial debut. He wants to craft a film encapsulating the essence of 90s independent cinema filmmaking. Kline does that successfully; his directorial vision is mainly focused on capturing a gritty and dirty atmosphere via old filmmaking aesthetics – the grainy cinematography and grungy look. You can smell and sense the grittiness of what’s on-screen, from the cigarettes to the grime and muck stenches. This presentation fits with the narrative and subject matter, since life can switch gears quickly, causing you to question your choices; life can be ugly and harsh, and Kline captures that aspect quite well.
That is Funny Pages’ best asset, for better or worse. Unfortunately, I say so because there isn’t anything else to praise or talk positively about. The grittiness of Sean Price Williams’ cinematography carries the film instead of the script and performances. Its deadpan and “darkly” comedic script doesn’t allow the audience to connect with the characters. Their interactions with one another feel neither realistic nor truthful because of their frenzied life choices, which don’t have clear motivations. As these decisions keep arriving, the audience loses interest and attention. The only thing that can salvage the experience is laughter, which also lacks massive amounts of. There is precise line delivery from the actors, specifically Zolghadri and Josh Pais, but the script is so poor and muddled that they can’t do much to lift it from its sticky situation.
One thing I admire more than I actually like is the uniqueness of Kline’s unconventional storytelling. There’s no traditional path to tell this story of a young man’s journey to achieve artistry. It gets odd and absurd in moments where it is supposed to switch into a calmer state and reach a deadpan state instead of presenting these characters as humanistic as possible. However, that also gets under your skin, since scenes are included just to gross out the viewer instead of adding something of value to the story.
In addition, its last act is a total directionless mess, with no coherence or entertainment value – it also doesn’t conclude any of the character’s story arcs. In the end, Funny Pages ends up being a poorly made mumblecore-esque picture with little substance and laughs. It is a bit redundant that the title has the word funny in it, and it isn’t witty at all. It is a very anxiety-inducing experience to see a comedy film without laughs or well-executed comedic quips and skits. You are just waiting to laugh, or at least chuckle, but that moment never arrives. Owen Kline might be compared to Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), but he has plenty to learn before he reaches his status. I can’t wait to see Zolghadri in other features and find out how Kline expands his repertoire, but Funny Pages was an insufferable experience.
Funny Pages is now available to watch in US theaters.