‘Funny Pages’ Has the Wildest Acting of the Summer

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/A24
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/A24

Like the rotten black shower water that welcomes its hero to his first home away from home, Funny Pages coats you in a soup of sweaty roommates, awkward naked men, and one disastrous Christmas morning.

A24’s Funny Pages (out this weekend in theaters and on VOD) is such a loving tribute to the vibes of such left-of-center cartoonists as Robert Crumb, and so madcap and unhinged, it’s no wonder it is produced by the Safdie brothers. After the film’s Cannes debut this summer, The Daily Beast called the film “assured and funny, an almost bewilderingly throwback indie film whose wit and lack of starriness are beguiling.” And indeed, on top of the rest of its curdled delights, at the core of Funny Pages is the wildest ensemble performance you’re likely to see this year, even if you might not recognize many of its stars.

In the film, things get weird quickly—and stay there—while crafting a portrait of young comic book artist Robert, played by Eighth Grade’s Daniel Zolghadri. After the sudden death of his boundary-crossing mentor, Robert decides to drop out of high school before graduation, much to the concern of his helpless parents. Instead of preparing for college, Robert aims to surround himself with the grimiest lot of individuals, who he thinks will serve as inspiration for his art. But his objectification of the weirdos on the margins is more than his naivete can handle, and it all culminates in the most chaotic Christmas morning since Santa forgot to bring Dawn Davenport her cha-cha heels.

Though audiences may not be familiar with everyone in Funny Pages’ ensemble, its writer/director Owen Kline isn’t exactly a stranger: He previously played the younger brother in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, and is also the child of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. But with Funny Pages, he’s delivering a film that’s maybe the closest approximation to the work of cinematic counter-culture godfather John Waters since his retirement nearly two decades ago.

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Like Waters before him, Kline is interested in the profanity of the everyday. And he is already adept at forming a ferocious ensemble of performers who fascinate audiences as much as they freak them out. It’s an assemblage of folks seemingly picked from the street, bit players, and noted character actors, including a stark naked and unafraid Stephen Adly Guirgis, the Pultizer-winning playwright. Kline often captures their performances in discomforting, confrontational close-ups, increasing the film’s revolting intensity along with its brute-impact hijinks. We’re left experiencing the madness much as Zolghadri’s Robert does: awestruck, morbidly curious, and bracing for the unpredictable.

Zolghadri brings a perfect rebellious spirit to Robert, while making him neither too charming nor too precocious. Part of what makes Funny Pages’ so caustic is that Robert’s middle-finger misguidedness isn’t celebrated; his eschewing of the traditional, expected routes to adulthood doesn’t signify nobility, as other film’s might have portrayed it. Zolghadri’s performance doesn’t pull any punches in this regard, especially when he’s monologuing with mouths full of food without the self-aware wink you might expect from a young comedic performer. His unvarnished delivery is part of what makes Robert so frustrating, and all the more funny in his blase reality.

‘Funny Pages’ Is a Darkly Hilarious Comic Book Comedy from the Safdie Brothers’ Promising Protégé

Serving as a baseline for the film’s unique brand of crazy is the normalcy of Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia as Robert’s parents. Both actors steady the film, not only for their recognizability after years in character roles in independent film, but also for leaning into the character’s aghast rationality. Similarly, Miles Emanuel brings a groundedness to the surroundings as Robert’s friend Miles, also a burgeoning artist but maybe even more delusional than Robert. By film’s end, even each of their straightlaced portrayals are left shrieking and bellowing from the pure havok that Robert has brought to their lives.

But the film really thrives when it indulges in its strangest characters. A pharmacy patron played by (Mary Hartman herself!) Louise Lasser makes for what is surely the most hilariously bizarre, yet downright frightening one-scene-wonder. Lasser is committed to the off-putting bit, all the more funny because of our difficulty to place her recognizable face. Such cameos are an essential ingredient to the crazy: Ron Rifkin shows up for a single brief moment as Robert’s grandfather, his sudden unheralded appearance almost a punchline itself. Mitchell Wenig, one of the balding brothers from the Safdies’ Uncut Gems makes an appearance.

At the film’s cringe-inducing wildest, Funny Pages introduces us to Barry and Steven (Michael Townshend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr., respectively), the basement-dwelling weirdos that Robert chooses to move in with to inspire his work with their unavoidable eccentricity. Here, Kline is most likely to inspire the pride of Clowes, practically baking us in their sweaty-soaked awkwardness and ultimately trapping us in perhaps the film’s bawdiest bit of bizarre comic anarchy. In kind, Wright and Thomas Jr. turn in performances so odd that they blur the film’s line of fiction and reality.

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The brightest and most poisonous supporting spotlight of Funny Pages belongs to Matthew Maher as Robert’s prime target. A veteran of the New York stage, including such noteworthy work as the divisive Pultizer winner The Flick, Maher is no stranger to portraying the outsider. Or to churning understated comic gold, as he did on HBOMax’s Our Flag Means Death. Here Maher somewhat runs away with the film as Wallace, pulled into Robert’s orbit while waging a one-sided war with a local pharmacist and facing legal repercussions for his raging outbursts. Their chemistry is a powder keg: Wallace’s hostility makes him an unexpected foil to Robert’s cruel navel-gazing, and Maher’s live-wire idiosyncrasy makes a hilarious harmony to Zohlgadri’s forced-casual immaturity.

It’s a performance, much like the film, both idiosyncratic and broad. Maher goes hilariously wide-eyed and frozen in fury at the slightest unexpected act or question, constantly stunned anew by the world’s capacity to upset him. He is hilarious partly because he makes Wallace so terrifying, while also revealing his powerlessness to his blinding anger. By the end, he has earned a little bit of righteousness against Robert’s bad behavior. If John Waters can make an underground star out of Edith Massey or the rageful Mink Stole, Owen Kline should be able to make one of Maher.

The overall effect that Funny Pages’ cast brings to Kline’s grimy vision is that seemingly anything can happen suddenly in its madcap mania. But the ensemble helps the film from being more than just an outlandish cartoon. They turn it into something side-splittingly, deeply uncomfortably real.

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