Monday, December 19, 2022

Portrait of the Artist, Part II: Funny Pages

Matthew Maher and Daniel Zolghadri in Funny Pages.

In the first scene of Funny Pages, a middle-aged man strips naked and hoists himself on top of the desk to pose for a teenage kid. The boy is Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a gifted underground comic artist; the man, Mr. Katano (played by the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis), is his art teacher and the only adult he knows – besides the owner of the comics store where he works – who sees a spark of genius in his work and encourages him to quit school and pursue his art. Mr. Katano is a great model, but his eagerness to expose himself freaks Robert out, so after he’s finished the drawing he slips out of his mentor’s apartment as fast as he can. Katano chases after him in his car to make sure the incident hasn’t made it weird between them – as if there was the slimmest chance it wouldn’t have – and he’s so anxious to smooth things out with Robert that he swerves into the wrong lane and crashes fatally into another car. All of this takes roughly ten minutes of screen time. By the time you get to the end of this initial section you’re either gasping or howling with laughter, or maybe both. It may be the wildest opening of a movie I’ve ever sat through.

Funny Pages was written and directed by thirty-one-year-old Owen Kline. The son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, he was briefly a film actor when he was in his teens; he played Jesse Eisenberg’s kid brother in The Squid and the Whale. This is his first feature as a filmmaker, and it’s not remotely like any other coming-of-age movie I can think of: outrageous and lunatic and uproarious but also impassioned and clearly deeply personal. Like his protagonist, Kline is a cartoonist, so though this comedy has a prize script, it’s not just the work of a talented writer trying to find his way with a camera. He’s already worked out how to make completely original, indelible images, which the muted, slightly overdeveloped lighting by Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny poeticizes. And somehow he’s taught himself how to stage the kind of nutcake collision-course revue-sketch sequences that half the young filmmakers in America hankered after in the early seventies but only a handful were able to pull off. (Funny Pages has a marvelous unresolved finale that also reminded me of that sorely missed era in movies.) I saw the movie three months ago, but when I sat down to review it at last, a glance at my notes brought the whole thing back, not only vividly but full-blown, as if it were playing itself out in front of my eyes.

And that’s not everything – Kline collaborates wonderfully with his actors too. They’re the strangest, most surprising ensemble you can conceive of. Zolghadri is a splendidly offbeat camera subject: he’s innocent, open, like a little boy who’s somehow made it to adolescence before his features have caught up, but he has a skeptical air that doesn’t match up with the rest of him. And then he smiles and his whole face breaks apart. The more Zolghadri shows up on screen the more he shows us, and he’s in every scene. After Mr. Katano dies, Robert and his best friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), a pockmarked scarecrow of a kid with very long straight hair who manages to look zonked and deeply curious at the same time, break into his apartment in search of samples of his own art to keep as mementos. But they get caught. A sympathetic lawyer named Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis) gets the case against them dismissed and to thank her Robert sends her one of his cartoon nudes. She loves it so much that she hires him to do secretarial work for her and gets him to sketch one of her associates on the sly. Robert’s parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia) are pissed at him for getting in trouble with the law, and even more furious when he insists, following his mentor’s counsel, that he’s had enough of school. He moves out of his folks’ Princeton, New Jersey home, relocates to Trenton and rents a room in a miserable house in a cruddy neighborhood from a weird old guy (Michael Townsend Wright) who carefully instructs him to keep their living arrangement a secret, transparently so he won’t have to report the rent he pays to the IRS. Robert has to share a basement room with another boarder (Cleveland Thomas Jr.), a Black man who looks to be about thirty-five and is so thin you expect to see him walk through walls. Their subterranean hideaway is hot as hell, but when both his landlord and his roommate turn out to be comic-book mavens, Robert is contented with the set-up – at least until he discovers the two men share a sexual peccadillo.

Robert’s relationship with his parents, especially his father, is unendurable, but Kline’s depiction of it is far from one-sided. In fact, the kid is impossible when he’s around them; you can see that his moving away from them is the only way either he or they have a chance of staying sane. The people he runs into when he gets away from his family are mostly at odds with the world, and their topsy-turvy existence and misfit energy makes them seem like contemporary versions of characters out of Lewis Carroll. The angriest of them is Wallace, one of Cheryl’s clients, whom she’s defending against a pharmacist who has charged him with assault. (Until he enters the picture, the angriest person on the screen is Robert’s father, who always looks like he’s about to blow a gasket.) Matthew Maher, who plays Wallace, attracted attention when he co-starred in the Annie Baker four-hander The Flick in 2013; he’s appeared in a number of pictures but this is his first major film role, and he’s spectacularly creepy and funny. Good as Kline’s young leading man is, Maher walks away with the movie. Wallace is obviously unhinged and even dangerous, but when Robert discovers that he used to be a colorist for one of his favorite “undergrounds,” he’s overcome. He begs Wallace to let him pay for art lessons and immediately gets caught up in his craziness. In one scene, Wallace commandeers him to accompany him to the drugstore where he got in the fight with the pharmacist (Sylvia Michael Martinez) and rile him up so Wallace can get his explosion on tape as evidence that he and not Wallace is a walking time bomb. This scene, which features a juicy cameo from Louise Lasser as a woman who tries to bully Robert into scoring her some Percocet, is probably Zolghadri’s finest moment. He plays Robert’s amazement against the boy’s irresistible urge for adventure. He can’t believe what he’s seeing and hearing but he doesn’t take off – he’s too engaged. He always goes for it. He’s inherited that quality for the prodigious young filmmaker who drew him.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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