Owen Kline’s directorial debut, Funny Pages, is a full-fledged Elara picture containing the exact type of offbeat comedy found in a Safdie brothers film (with appearances from Elara alums Buddy Duress and Mitchell Wenig in minor roles). But it’s also something more, which will likely make or break everyone’s viewing experience. The anxiety-inducing fly-on-the-wall aesthetic and unnatural performances from its actors sell the movie well, but a little bit more meat on the bone would’ve been appreciated.
The aspects that work brilliantly shine throughout the entirety of Funny Pages. Daniel Zolghadri is particularly excellent as Robert, a wannabe cartoonist who tells his parents (Josh Pais & Maria Dizzia) that he’s quitting school to pursue a career working for Cheryl Quartermaine (Marcia Debonis), his legal aide. During that time, he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), who used to work at Image Comics but is now in legal trouble after a violent altercation with a pharmacist. The two of them start to spend more time together and develop a quasi-friendship, which becomes the film’s emotional core.
Zolghadri and Maher are terrific together and have impeccable chemistry that makes Funny Pages’ most comedic scenes shine through. They’re naturally funny and never need to over-exert themselves to make the comedy work. Those are the signs of two gifted actors finally being able to use their talents to the fullest. The supporting cast is also superb. Dizzia and Pais play Robert’s parents with aplomb and both of them convey pure anxiety in a way that rivals Adam Sandler’s Oscar-worthy performance in Uncut Gems when Wallace starts to wreak havoc in their house.
However, like any Elara picture, it’s the small additions to the cast playing its minor supporting characters that makes the film a unique watch. I’ve already mentioned Duress and Wenig (with the latter making the theater erupt in Avengers: Endgame-level cheers when he appeared on screen), but other appearances from Debonis, Miles Emmanuel, Stephen Adly Guirgis and the ever-iconic Ron Rifkin are just as effective and fun to watch. Their appearances enhance the movie’s full-on gonzo aesthetic, which bounces between the disgusting hyper-realism of Harmony Korine to the fast-paced vibe of a John Cassavetes film. Kline and cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny create fast-moving images, perfectly married to the tempo of its actors and Sean O’Hagen’s minimalist but compelling score.
And even with all of those elements working together to make the film a rather enjoyable watch, Funny Pages has a hard time justifying exactly what it wants to say. The characters are colorful, and funnily portrayed by their actors, but their motivations are paper-thin, and the movie doesn’t give that much thought to anything the characters do. It’s a series of events where Robert is at the center of attention, with a few oddball scenes that give the movie its darkly comic tone, but I couldn’t help but want more. It’s especially apparent when the movie focuses on Robert and Wallace near its latter half. Things could’ve been better developed in that regard, but Kline keeps their on-screen relationship in the most surface-level way possible, without digging deep into their aspirations or the reason why they “clicked” as friends.
It also helps that some of the humor is terribly crude and unfunny. For some, it may work well (fans of John Waters or Korine will love it), but I found some situations to be terribly uncomfortable, cringeworthy, and at times, just plain gross. The movie’s bizarre atmosphere stays throughout, but sometimes it gets too bizarre, and that’s where Funny Pages started to break my attention. Still, I won’t fault Funny Pages for being bizarre, because the crux of the movie remains a fascinating watch, even if some of it doesn’t work. At times, it’s a brilliant comedy that feels like a spiritual successor to Uncut Gems, but when it starts to veer close to Gummo territory, it fails. Your taste may depend on how you’ll ultimately land on the film, but I had fun, even if it wasn’t a perfect viewing. It’s certainly the strangest, most bewildering comedy you’ll see all year, and that’s a good thing, even if it might not be your jam.
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Funny Pages boasts an impressive cast and a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic in line with Elara’s style, but lacks the substance for it to be a truly impressive piece of work.
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