Funny Pages is a film about separating. It’s about the fine line detail that organizes a comic book strip and people who live in the heightened conflict of underground comic book pages. It is more the essence of comics come to life than any superhero movie ever gets to be. It is more authentic, more wholly at one with the form than just about anything else. It is more Ralph Bakshi than Marvel. It is more Safdie Brothers (who produce) than the Russo Brothers. It is an actual, thoughtful processing of the process itself, technique spilled onto the page with ink. This is director Owen Kline thinking through the camera. His imagination sketching onto the canvas a scuzzy world where nobody is likable, morality fluctuates like errantly drawn lines, and there is no sanctity left in the art because there is only decay left to capture.
It’s a gorgeous film because Owen Kline does not make any concessions. Possibly the Safdies’ production credit takes care of that. Parts and pieces certainly play like the best parts of Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019), rendering a valuable service that the duo are the arbiters of anxiety. The future of nervous cinema must rest on their shoulders. They carry the weight of such influence here. You can feel it right in the bones of the picture. Owen Kline has been working on the project for over six years. And that shows, too. In a year where so many projects are making deep concessions to a couple of years away, too much time editing with too little material, Kline has a complete film and that’s not just a low bar for what a movie needs to be, his film is holistically complete.
Perhaps it’s because Kline is also a cartoonist. His film understands the medium so well that someone on set would have to be an expert. It would have to be him. The film projects a deep-throated snarl of sub-cultural belonging. It wants to frighten away the outsiders with its bark but its bite is pretty mean too. The film can be cutting that way and does terrible things to its characters. It does not exactly like them. You will not like any of them. Maybe viewers who will connect on an innate level will respect the movie. That does sound more valuable.
It probably sounds pretty edgy by now. It sure is. Young Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) wants to shed the cozy comforts of his suburban life and go looking for Some Soul. It is a terrible and privileged practice, wherein he ventures outside the safe confines of his parent’s home and takes to infamously scuzzy Trenton, New Jersey. Gross. Lots of gross things happen. Lots of corroding of the soul, ironically, happens when the upper-middle-class white kid who doesn’t want to go to school goes and gets exploited somewhere he doesn’t really belong. He can always go home to his parents. He has not generated personal resources but he can offer the struggling, unhinged illustrator Wallace (Matthew Maher) a seat at the table on Christmas morning and his parents’ pancakes in return for some inking lessons. It’s all pathetic and sad and kind of captivating in a fucked up sort of way.
You get the feeling at every moment that you’re reading an underground comic. There is that class tension. There’s the punkish irreverence. The gross-out material and oddly shaped people. Characters get so ugly they seem to break out of the lines of some unseemly comic book strip. They are drawn larger than life. Ridiculous things happen because it’s a movie, but it does not operate only by movie principles, but by what would happen in a comic book. The sequencing then revolves around small bursts of immediate activity. We do not stay anywhere for more than a few pages of the script until the very climactic ending which takes all the right pages out of the Safdies’ playbook. Funny Pages is the harshest movie of the year for the characters inside it. It’s also one of the best: a grungy outsider movie filled with inventive vanguard filmmaking. A movie like that requires a certain amount of admiration. The lines are exactly right. It could not be drawn any differently.