The most immediate sensation you get when you start watching Funny Pages is revulsion. And that is completely intentional. From start to finish, the film is pervaded with a sense of gross-ness that is perfectly captured and conveyed to the audience with squirm-inducing results. This atmosphere – which encompasses every aspect of the filmmaking, from the actor’s caricature-like faces to the grainy film stock to the sound design – ties in perfectly with the type of story it tells. In tandem with its sense of humour, this is easily the best part of the film, elevating what would otherwise be a rather boring and confusing story.
Funny Pages tells the story of Robert, a high-school student who dreams of being a cartoonist. But not of superhero comics. He dreams of writing and drawing X-rated comedic cartoons – the kind that features dirty jokes and weird and distorted caricatures. The style of those cartoons – grimy, distorted and hilariously funny – is also the style of the film. From the opening scene, where Robert is challenged to draw his teacher (who poses nude on a table) this atmosphere is established and maintained, the strongest part of the film.
The film’s plot is, at a surface level, simple and generic. A high-school student decides to drop out of school and move out of his parent’s home to pursue his dream. Yet the specifics provide the film with its own unique (and farcical) take. The place (basement) Robert moves to is disgusting – boiling hot and cartoonishly filthy – and inhabited by two constantly sweating, wax-faced characters, Barry and Steven. His dream is to become an X-rated cartoonist. Comics are his life, he works in a comic-book store, and when he meets a former employee of Imagine Comics in the legal office where he works as an assistant, he becomes obsessed with getting to know him – at his peril.
The film features some hysterical scenes that cause the audience to laugh despite themselves. Darkly comedic and farcical, much like the comics that play such a central role, it is genuinely funny in a unique way. Yet at points, it becomes unclear what exactly we are laughing at. And sometimes the butt of the joke is a character we feel deeply sorry for.
The central character (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Zolghadri) fails to connect emotionally with the audience – not because of any flaws in the performance, but rather because he is so dislikeable. Driven by his obsession with becoming a cartoonist, he treats his best friend and family callously and dismissively. He makes huge mistakes and errors of judgement to pursue his dream. This is undoubtedly the point of the character – a seventeen-year-old who does not understand the repercussions of his actions – and yet as an audience, we never really care about him. Instead, we empathise with those around him, his friends and family, whom he ends up hurting. In the end, the audience does not care enough about his dream to understand why he feels he must pursue it so doggedly and as such he comes across as unsympathetic and at times cruel.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole suffers from a lack of compassion for its characters. Perhaps because they are for the most part such larger-than-life caricatures, we never truly empathise with anyone – not Robert’s parents, his friend Miles nor Wallace, the disgruntled “colour separator” who Robert becomes obsessed with learning. As such, the ending of the film, which is intense and leaves you squirming in your seat, fails to do much more than that – and feels emotionally slightly hollow.
In the end, Owen Kline’s directorial debut is very impressive – it clearly has a singular vision behind it. Its unique atmosphere and tone, conveyed by grainy film stock, perfect casting and quirky (and visual) humour make it stand out as a particularly interesting film that is worth seeing. Yet it falls short of capturing the audience emotionally and leaves us wondering why we care.
Funny Pages had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 14th.
Image courtesy of EIFF, provided to The Student as press material.