“Safdie Brothers fans are going to love this!” has been the headline in a lot of reviews for actor Owen Kline’s assured and scuzzy directorial debut Funny Pages, which is about, well, many of the same themes from which Josh and Benny Safdie consistently draw their films (characters who are their worst enemy, the effects of family on oneself, even cinematography by Sean Price Williams). Kline doesn’t give this the feel of a Safdie impression, but rather a loving homage to their early work and a past era of independent filmmaking. As far as 2022 comedies go, this has been my favorite so far.
Funny Pages has a mid-’00s feel but is not resistant to being modern, in the sense that it’s about the modern tortured artist and how being a narcissist as a young adult can damage your creativity. The film focuses on Robert (Daniel Zolghadi), a teenager who has an ever-growing love for drawing cartoons. Robert wants to leave home and make it out on his own after the passing of his favorite teacher, and rushes through adolescence. Kline is quick to show us that Robert and the world around him have separate ideas of the path to become a successful artist. In Daniel’s eyes, he can further his ambition by rejecting all the comforts of a middle-class life, even if this is a twisted version of the starving artist.
Robert’s mom and dad (Maria Dizzia and Joe Pais) only want the best for him, especially now that they see college on the horizon. Without any emotional manipulation or unethical parental guidance, his decision to leave is self-inflicted. He has such a big appetite to take on the world, but at the wrong speed to know how one’s life experience is informed by their art. The experiences he does find himself in, however, are just so funny and organic. It’s then on the shoulders of Zolghadi to deliver the reactions of realizing he might be in over his head, only it’s too late, as when he is first given a tour of the new, dingy apartment he must share with two older men, or when Robert must take an escapade to a local Rite Aid as a favor to would-be mentor Wallace (Matthew Maher). Funny Pages is at once gross and uncool in its sense of humor, but it’s moments like these when Kline brings the film back to its coming-of-age roots.
Its been cited in other reviews and reactions that there’s a bit of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer in Robert. In Rushmore, Max tries to seek out a mentor, even forcing Bill Murray’s Herman into this position, despite having a suitable father figure already. Similarly, Robert finds himself with Wallace, a color separator who used to work for a comics publisher. Robert takes an opportunity to fit a square peg into a round hole in trying to start a relationship with him so he can become a great cartoonist. Yet it’s naïve to think Wallace doesn’t have issues of his own to worry about aside from Robert’s “starving artist” phase; even when things get chaotic, Robert doesn’t stand to lose a new role model. Kline fills the film with both a plethora of New York character actors and people who are incredibly unlikable trying to find their place in the world. Which is the ultimate tragedy of Funny Pages: even if people like Robert don’t seek or realize change, all the signs are right in front of them.
dir. Owen Kline
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema. Opens Friday, 9/9 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre