Funny Pages is a film about funny people. People that you would immediately consider to be literal caricatures of human beings if you walked by them. But beneath the amusing personas that populate Owen Kline’s feature debut is a tragically hilarious coming of age story about the holes we try to fill in our misguided hearts.
The first funny person to grace our presence is the soul-preaching art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis). He poses like naked French models for his adolescent high school students. The sight of this would normally put me off from the start. However, Kline directs it with an ironic sensibility that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The opening sequence ends with Katano’s mentee – a cartoonist named Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) – fleeing the art studio and an oncoming car striking Katano. It is both hilarious and tragic. It lets you know exactly what type of film you’re getting into and what kind of fragile state in which Robert will begin his journey.
As someone who spent more time in class drawing pictures of my teacher than listening to what they had to say, I could relate to Robert’s escapist attitude. People are the inspiration for his work, even if that comes at the expense of their dignity. He also has no interest in the “real world” that his parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) peddle. They’re the only characters in Funny Pages that are reminiscent of actual people. Thus, they offer no inspiration for Robert. Despite living in an upper-class neighborhood, Robert flees from his imagined imprisonment into a world full of cartoon characters.
Throughout Funny Pages, we come face to face with more larger-than-life funny people. Robert’s landlord and roommate in the inner city, Barry, is the physical embodiment of grease. I could smell the B.O. radiating off the walls as the camera navigates his humid and grimy apartment. Cheryl is the curly-headed, pig-nosed public attorney whom Robert works for. She snorts through her laughs at the doodles he makes of her coworkers. Coworkers like the spaghetti-haired Gary and the lanky Steven are cannon fodder for Robert’s imagination. We often revisit events in the film through his comics, which give us insight into his raunchy perspective on the world.
The most important of these funny people, however, is Wallace (Matthew Maher), an erratic client of Cheryl accused of striking a pharmacist. We are introduced to Wallace aggressively bathing himself in the courthouse sink. The image of him staring at Robert with his horrible beady little eyes is seared into my memory. When Robert finds out Wallace was a former color separator at Image Comics, he sees the opportunity for a new mentor. But unlike Katano, Wallace wants nothing to do with the artform he once made a living off of.
Robert sees something in Wallace that Wallace doesn’t see in himself. Unfortunately, Wallace sees in Robert an opportunity for money and escape from his current predicament. It’s heartbreaking to see Robert’s morals corrupted at the expense of pleasing Wallace, even if it leads to some hilarious altercations. Despite Wallace’s manic outbreaks, Robert extends an open invitation to his house for Christmas. You can feel Wallace’s discomfort in reacting to kindness, but he ultimately is unable to reciprocate the emotion. What ensues is a third act full of chaos and tragedy all wrapped up in a neat comedic bow.
Wallace, Barry, Cheryl, Gary, and Steven are just a handful of the many funny people to grace our presence throughout the brisk 86-minute runtime. It came as no surprise when I found out Josh and Benny Safdie produced this film. The outlandish predicaments these characters find themselves in might as well take place in the state over from Uncut Gems. Kline places an emphasis on close-ups reminiscent of Good Time. That said, he still directs it with a childish sensibility in beautiful 16mm that fits the unique tone of the story.
Funny Pages is ultimately about characters seeking purpose in the wrong places and courting change in an uncompromising world. Life in the “real world” is full of amazing and unique opportunities, but it can prove to be too perilous for misguided souls. It’s the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie in years, and I strongly recommend you support these new faces when it releases in theaters. – Caleb Sadd
Funny Pages premiered at Cannes on May 24, 2022, but its wide release date has yet to be announced.