Funny Pages review – a deliciously dark coming-of-age comedy

Owen Kline fuses teen innocence with adult sexuality in a bad-taste debut film that recalls American Splendor and Crumb

As a child actor, Owen Kline played Jesse Eisenberg’s kid brother in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s excruciating comedy about a middle-class New York family wrecked by divorce, with Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the warring parents. Kline played the troubled 12-year-old kid who sympathises with his mother and has developed a habit of covertly masturbating in public.

His debut feature as a director features many of the same unwholesome themes. This is a genuinely bizarre, startling, freewheelingly lo-fi and funny indie picture with the refreshing bad-taste impact of Todd Solondz or Robert Crumb. Daniel Zolghadri plays Robert, a talented high-school graphic artist and cartoonist who idolises his art teacher – the man that might, very possibly, have been about to abuse him sexually before fate took a terrible hand.

We begin as this inspirational teacher, Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) is challenging Robert to wake up creatively, to get out of his comfort zone, and perhaps draw him naked, maybe? Polite, biddable Robert says yes and Katano strips off – his great, obese, middle-aged body fully revealed when his vast white underpants are discarded. Poor Robert sketches him as best he can and while walking home later, Katano draws up alongside in his car and insists on offering Robert a lift – pulling into the oncoming traffic lane as he does so.

The subsequent shocking series of events ends with Robert getting a humble filing job in the district attorney’s office, covertly sketching the various lowlifes and no-hopers he sees there on both sides of the law. The rest of the time he hangs out obsessively at the local comics store, cultivating his fanatical connoisseurship. He imperiously tells his uptight parents (played by Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia) that he has no intention of going to college, preferring instead to follow his artistic vocation – sanctified, of course by this noble teacher. He even intends to move away from the comfortable family home in Princeton, New Jersey, and going to the tough neighbouring town of Trenton he rents a nightmarish room from the ineffably creepy landlord Barry (Michael Townsend Wright).

But it is in the DA’s office that Robert is electrified by a discovery: among the gallery of losers and creeps is Wallace (Matthew Maher), who Robert realises was once the “colour assistant” on some of the comics he loves. Robert makes it his muddled mission to somehow befriend or redeem Wallace, an act of homage he considers appropriate for a young master like himself. But the entirely awful and very mad Wallace, by his own admission, had no creative input in these comics, and can do nothing but drag Robert into an awful chaos: the unfunny pages of real life.

There are some great cameos, including a hilarious one from the legendary Louise Lasser as a mean lady in a pharmacist. To watch this film is to be reminded of Paul Giamatti’s performance as the gloomy cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (2003) or the real Robert Crumb, the dark master of offensive sexual transgression in Terry Zwigoff’s classic documentary Crumb (1994), along with his unforgettably unhappy and marginalised brothers Charles and Max. Funny Pages is about that kind of Crumb vision in comics, which confronts or exorcises, or is simply a cry for help. I spent an awful lot of this film gasping for air and giggling hysterically, often at the same time.

• Funny Pages screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 16 September in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema..

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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