‘Oddball characters, single-minded goals and bitingly funny one-liners’
A good biopic should make you understand the subject under the microscope.
Dark comedies, however, turn their scourging brushes on the easy targets – the worlds or people ripe for comedy.
Owen Kline’s directorial debut Funny Pages takes the easiest of shots, but with such showmanship.
In his crosshairs are comic books, which have come back into fashion but are still inexorably linked, particularly in the American psyche, with losers, incels, and outcasts of the high school system.
Funny Pages follows anti-hero Robert, played magnificently by Daniel Zolghadri, in his quest to become a cartoonist.
After rejecting his plush middle-class life (without much reason) in Princeton, he dives into a world of stunted adults, misadventure, and twisted sexuality.
The obsession with childhood is felt throughout, both with adults unwilling to fully commit to growing up and Robert and his friend Miles’s (played by Miles Emanuel) rocky introduction to the adult world.
Now a warning, this is a dark comedy in its inkiest form.
Robert’s befriending of a failed cartoonist in the form of Wallace, played with cruel comedy by Matthew Maher, laughs at mental illness.
There is a bubbling hint at paedophilia throughout as people expose the children, both physically and metaphorically, to things they should never see. This sticky blend of naivety with adult subversion is the film’s biggest strength and greatest weakness, depending on your sensitivity level. But if you like laughing when you shouldn’t, join me in the back row and we’ll chortle all the way to hell.
Kline’s choice of casting and uncomfortable close-ups create a world that mirrors the specific cartoonists that Robert idolises – Robert Crumbs, Daniel Clowes, and Harvey Pekars.
The collection of distinctive actors births a world of absurdism. For example, a sweaty basement gives us the glistening face of Robert’s first and incredibly creepy landlord (Michael Townsend Wright) – terrifyingly repulsive.
Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia are the most realistic, and explosively funny as the quintessential exacerbated parents.
The rest are like living caricatures that are cruel, impressive, and deeply unsettling. Faces are speckled with acne, shoving food into their gnawing maws revoltingly, corpulent, or haloed by wispy hair.
This reverse cartoon allows the extreme depictions to jump from the page to the screen with frightening results.
To create a world of such conflict, confusion, and intellectual irony would be impressive for a seasoned director. But after starring in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale in 2005, this is Kline’s first film.
Although it will have more scope in America due to its cultural morays around comic books, the world of oddball characters, single-minded goals and bitingly funny one-liners still stings in our British context.
Breaking away from the usual coming-of-age story of sex, love, and drugs, Funny Pages proves that the teenage mind can latch onto anything.
The film is wreathed in meaning and everyone involved understands the brief: be grotesque.
Despite not being a particularly pleasant experience, it certainly gets you thinking about the nature of childhood, the idea of innocence, and artistic ambition.
Though you might want to dip yourself into a bath of bleach afterwards.
Out now, click here to grab a ticket!