As far as I am concerned, there can never be enough offbeat coming-of-age quasi-comedies. And you’re telling me this one is specifically influenced by mumblecore — not the more humane Joe Swanberg post-mumblecore, but the skin-crawlingly misanthropic first wave? Hell yeah.
I think it’s no coincidence at all that this movie is titled Funny Pages and original mumblecore movie is titled Funny Ha Ha — that’s this film tipping its hand about its motivation and storytelling mode. Yet, every review of the movie I’ve found hasn’t connected it to Bujalski’s seminal 2002 cringe-fest, but instead Ghost World by Terry Zwigoff (a movie I’ve never seen but have been saving for a special occasion to watch because there’s every reason to think I will love it). I spent plenty of time thinking about another Zwigoff movie, too: the documentary Crumb, which probed the ways that many people who make comics, especially “underground comix,” are deeply broken people.
Anyways, Funny Pages is a short and endearingly brusque film about high school senior Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) who is an aspiring (and by all indication, fairly talented, though it hardly matters) comic artist. He cherishes old Archies and “Tijuana bibles” and processes the world around him by sketching it in nonstop caricature.
I should note that Zolghardi’s biggest film appearance prior to Funny pages is the back-seat truth-or-dare creep in Eighth Grade. He’s not quite as off-putting here as there, but he still has rough edges. Funny Pages isn’t as good as Eighth Grade, but it’s a good litmus test — if you enjoyed the awkward specificity of that film, there’s a chance you’ll dig this.
Robert spends the film’s 85 minutes encountering one scuzzy character after another in one scuzzy setting after another. The first of these encounters is the most unsettling and, in proper indie movie ambiguity fashion, one that simultaneously tells us everything and nothing about our protagonist’s turmoil. We see him getting a private lesson from his high school art teacher who is puffing him with flattery, encouraging him to be unfiltered and raw. The lesson rapidly turns horrifying as the teacher strips nude to be a model for Robert’s next sketch. When the teacher abruptly departs Robert’s life over the next few scenes (I don’t want to spoil it), it seems to short-circuit Robert’s brain and kick off his rejection of his cozy upper-middle-class life.
The movie plunges deeper into uncomfortable scenarios with pathetic interlopers as the movie aimlessly shambles. He unceremoniously drops out of school to pursue his dream to make comics. It’s never obvious which, if any, of these people that Robert encounters will provide some turning point for him, and, consequently, the film. When it’s finally Matthew Maher’s Wallace, who has a very tenuous connection to the comics industry, I was surprised, but not disappointed: Maher has an intensity and danger in his performance that is something special. His emergence coincides with the movie’s pivot to a slightly more tense, dramatic tone that is almost suspenseful in its rising awkwardness.
As I’ve noted, this is a film deeply indebted to mumblecore, and in that tradition, the film’s ending is fairly abrupt and unsatisfying, forcing the viewers to decide what, if anything at all, was learned and overcome by its protagonist.
There are a few too many undercooked ideas for it to really gel — a scene at a pharmacy in particular felt like it could have used another draft or else cut from the film — but Funny Pages is pretty much exactly my jam, at least when I’m in a slightly masochistic mood. Its blend of tense, cringe-inducing comedy and idiosyncratic character portrait is charming in spite of the ramshackle script and look.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film