Funny Pages

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You might remember Owen Kline for his role as Frank, a kid struggling with his parents' divorce, in Noah Baumbach's 2005 drama The Squid and the Whale. Or you might know him as the son of Oscar-winning actor Kevin Kline and Fast Times at Ridgemont High star Phoebe Cates. Going forward, though, there's every reason to believe he'll be best known as an original, risk-taking filmmaker. Kline's debut feature Funny Pages is a wonderfully weird comedy about the quest for artistic inspiration. It's one of the year's most offbeat pictures.

Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is an aspiring cartoonist, heavily influenced by underground comics that feature sex and nudity. His parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) expect him to go to art school. His high school art teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), discourages that, saying that having technique rammed down his throat will “ruin” him. Robert chooses to listen to his teacher. He leaves home, moving into a beyond-dingy basement apartment in Trenton, New Jersey, where he lives with two extremely sketchy, much older roommates. This is the beginning of his quest to infuse his drawings with “soul.”

More importantly, he gets a job working for a public defender named Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis). This puts him in contact with one of her clients, the volatile Wallace (Matthew Maher). Upon learning Wallace was once a “color separator” at Image Comics, Robert attempts to befriend him, and possibly convince him to provide some art lessons. Let's just say that he gets more than he bargained for.

Funny Pages is like an R. Crumb comic come to life. For actors outside Robert's family, Kline uses people with distinct faces and unusual looks. Assembled together, they give the movie a cartoonish appearance. He then puts his characters into grotesque locations, where they often do socially inappropriate things. This suggests that inspiration is all around Robert, that the world is itself a cartoon, waiting to be drawn by him. To underline that further, the movie is scored with old-time novelty songs and Theremin music. A whole strange vibe is created via these methods, one that lulls you in.

Kline obviously understands comics on a deeper level than most people. Even if you don't understand every piece of technical dialogue Robert and Wallace speak, the sheer authenticity of it makes the story feel genuine. Having that quality is essential. When you can tell a story is faking it, caring about anything becomes difficult. We recognize that Robert has actual knowledge, so our investment in his journey grows. As much as anything, what makes the film fun is seeing him take all the stuff he's learned and attempt to find parallels to real life.

A strong performance from Zolghadri adds to the impact. The young actor is charming, yet also unafraid to portray his character's rough edges and occasional rudeness. Maher, one of those great “that guy” character actors, matches him, making Wallace's tempestuous personality somehow scary and hilarious at the same time. Funny Pages isn't big on plot. It is, however, an entertaining, laugh-filled study of a burgeoning cartoonist trying to find as much meaning in life as he does on the page.

out of four

Funny Pages is rated R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief violent images. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.