Review: 'Funny Pages,' a blistering, comedic portrait of a teen cartoonist, isn't a calm mix

At a certain point in “Funny Pages,” a calculatedly abrasive portrait of the comic-book artist as a young man, I lost count of exactly how many of its characters I’d envisioned falling off a cliff.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, entirely. Blandly likable characters are such a given in so many movies, especially American movies, that it can be a tonic to encounter a few flat-out repellent ones. And really, a fatal fall would hardly be the nastiest punchline in a movie that continually falls back on Wile E. Coyote levels of slapstick violence.

In the opening scene, an after-school art lesson goes comically awry, sending the student, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), fleeing into the night while his doting teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis) meets an untimely end.

Nothing good, it seems, comes of encouraging the young. Robert, a gifted teenage cartoonist, is hit hard by his mentor’s death, and it hastens his departure from comfy Princeton, N.J., suburbia and sends him down a rabbit hole of nerd-tacular intrigue.

For years he’s worshiped at the altar of great American cartoonists and dreamed of joining their ranks. He spends most of his time hanging out at the year-round acne convention that is his local vintage comics store, shunning the superhero fandom that passes for mainstream geekery nowadays in pursuit of a purer, more artisanal fanaticism.

To that end, he also churns out his own artfully crude drawings, some of which draw inspiration from the absurdity of his own life and some of which mimic the pen-and-ink pornography of old-school “Tijuana bibles,” with their randy tales and exaggerated genitalia.

An attention-grabbing debut for its 30-year-old writer and director, Owen Kline, “Funny Pages” draws its cranky-grungy energy from the 1970s heyday of underground comics and also from the rough-hewn independent films that proliferated during that period. If the jaundiced worldview of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar looms heavily over Robert’s work, the spirits of John Cassavetes and Jerry Schatzberg sometimes haunt this movie’s unglamorous faces and rundown locations, and also the inelegant Super 16-millimeter frames of Hunter Zimny’s cinematography.

At the same time, Kline’s sensibility feels equally shaped by more recent strains in cutting-edge American cinema, namely the jagged gutter odysseys of Josh and Benny Safdie (“Good Time”) and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”), all three of whom are credited as producers here.

“Funny Pages,” in other words, is not out to solicit anyone’s affections or measure up to any expectations but its own. Something similar could be said of Robert, who, spurning the warnings of his upper-middle-class parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais, entirely sympathetic), drops out of high school, buys a rickety car and follows his artistic impulses wherever they might lead.

Before long they lead him to Trenton, where he moves into a disgustingly airless, squalid basement apartment occupied by a couple of creeps (Michael Townsend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr.), occasioning many stomach-churning close-ups of sweaty brows and filthy toenails. The grotesquerie isn’t just over-the-top, it’s practically up-your-nose.

If Kline’s filmmaking seems to wear its grotty realism on its sleeve, his plotting has a shambling, anything-goes playfulness. The story takes its most contrived turn when Robert lands a part-time job at a public defender’s office. That’s where he meets Wallace (a terrifying Matthew Maher), an embittered grouch with a violent streak and, it turns out, a long-ago career as a color separator for the famed Image Comics. Could this guy be the mentor who replaces Robert’s beloved teacher and steers him toward the career of his dreams? All it takes is one look at Wallace’s misanthropic scowl to know the answer.

But Robert is too blinded by his ambition to care. As he tries to ingratiate himself with Wallace, he sets in motion a series of tense, farcical shenanigans involving a pharmacy (keep your eye out for the great Louise Lasser) and, less persuasively, a hellish Christmas morning at home that somehow doesn’t end with Robert getting carted off to military school. But then, he’s used to coasting on charm as well as talent.

As played by Zolghadri (“Eighth Grade”), he projects more charisma and social smarts than some of his comic-book-loving brethren, especially his sweetly awkward best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), whom he picks on relentlessly for his clumsy drawing style.

“You’ve got to be harder on yourself,” Robert tells Miles, which is undoubtedly sound advice for an artist, if also a sign that he’s allowed his drive to eclipse his decency. Or it could just be that Robert’s always been a monumentally entitled brat, someone who’s now temporarily slipping the knot of his coddled upbringing to descend, for creative inspiration, into someone else’s lower depths.

You suspect that Kline has some firsthand knowledge of what he’s trying to skewer, and not just because of his own experience as a cartoonist. He’s the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he acted in a few movies as a child, most notably playing the younger of two misfit brothers in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”

In “Funny Pages,” a corrosive comedy of artistic aspiration and failure, he seems to be working overtime to strip away even the slightest patina of optimism or earnestness from Robert’s journey. He wants to elicit your laughter and horror at the sheer futility of his striving.

Mission accomplished, I guess. But “Funny Pages” itself sometimes feels like an exercise in misplaced artistry, a student’s overly precocious stab at brutish cynicism. Its biggest laughs, which tend to go hand-in-hand with its meanest jolts, seem to arise less from any recognizable emotional or situational reality than from a filmmaker’s desire to shock and humiliate his characters, to put them repeatedly through the wringer.

Perhaps that ruthlessness means to evoke that glum Crumb sensibility, to render a vision of the world from the jaundiced perspective of Robert’s justly storied idols. But you can believe in Robert — his talent, at least — without quite believing the strange, ugly story he finds himself in.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.