“Funny Pages,” a scruffy, grungy, likably tossed-together sketchbook of a low-budget indie comedy, typifies a paradox that now runs through a great deal of independent cinema. The movie, set in a humdrum New Jersey suburbia, unfolds on the moldy bottom rung of the comic-book ladder. It centers on two friends who are obsessed with drawing their own comics, and it’s about the insular world of geeks and creeps and pervs and weirdos that this brings them into contact with.
Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), at 17, has left the posh home of his parents in Princeton and set up residence in downscale Trenton, where he hangs out at the local comic-book store along with his friend, the sweetly passive, long-haired, acne-ridden Miles (Miles Emanuel), who has a secret crush on him. These two eat, breathe, and sleep comic books. But they’re not into superheroes. To them the comic-book world is all about bringing reality to the page. They’re fixated on artists who work in the tradition of R. Crumb, like Daniel Clowes and Harvey Pekar and Peter Bagge. The everyday situations those artists create on the page are intensely relatable, making their comic books the opposite of fantasy.
That’s appealing on its own terms (it’s part of what makes Crumb the greatest artist ever to have worked in the comic-book medium). But hooked into that appeal is a certain DIY factor. You look at comics like Harvey Pekar’s and think, “Maybe I could actually do something like that.” (It’s the same struck-by-lightning feeling that Martin Scorsese got when he saw John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” — the revelation that he, too, could just go out into the New York streets and shoot a movie.)
Trying to capture life raw, as opposed to drawing some rainy sci-fi dystopia featuring horned demigods, is what a certain comic-book impulse is all about, an impulse that’s more connected to Charles Bukowski (or even Dostoevsky) than to the further adventures of men in capes. And you’d think “Funny Pages,” in peering into the lives of these kinds of devotees, would itself be rooted in a certain scuzzball reality principle. In a way it is. The film’s lighting is plain and glarey, and the settings are skeevy — like the basement apartment where Robert’s cohorts masturbate to Tijuana bibles (those pre-underground pornographic knockoffs of famous comic strips that show, for instance, Betty boffing Jughead), or the comic-book store that, in a few promising early scenes, looks like the setting for a “High Fidelity” of vérité comics. “Funny Pages” was produced by Josh and Benny Safdie, who as filmmakers (“Uncut Gems”) have made a certain gutter grunge quality their calling card, and the movie has an uncut Safdie flavor.
What is doesn’t have, oddly, is any sort of bone-deep reality factor. Almost nothing that happens in “Funny Pages” is particularly believable. The movie opens with Robert hanging out with his high-school art teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guigis), who insists on posing naked for him in order to illustrate a lesson about life drawing. This seems an extreme enough note to kick off a movie on, but to top it off, Mr. Katano races after Robert to apologize — and gets killed in a car accident. Now we’re off and running into whatever-happens-happens-ville.
Owen Kline, the writer and director of “Funny Pages,” has been an actor (he played Jesse Eisenberg’s little brother in “The Squid and the Whale”); he is also the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. In this, his debut as a filmmaker, he writes some acidly funny exchanges, and his affection for freaks and losers — and for the twisted purity of comic-book bohemians — is palpable. Yet watching “Funny Pages,” you can’t help but wonder whether the fact that this film was made by the child of two celebrities is linked in some way to how nonchalant the movie is, in its storytelling, about flouting basic rules of common sense.
Robert goes to work in the office of a public defender (Marcia Debonis), and that’s where he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a screw-loose cannon who once worked for the fabled Image Comics. He was just a color separator, but to Robert, who wants to break into the game, that makes him a god — or, at least, someone who once stood next to gods, or separated their colors. Robert latches onto Wallace, even though the man seems like a sub-incel, a seething lunatic. It only adds to the incongruity that Daniel Zolghadri, the engaging actor who plays Robert, is good-looking enough to come off less like a fervid comics nerd than like the Adrian Grenier of this group.
Wallace was arrested for a brawl at the local pharmacy, and the only thing on his mind is going back to the pharmacy to get his revenge. If you ask him about comic books, he’ll mostly scowl and gnash his teeth. Matthew Maher can be a mesmerizing actor, but the way he has been directed there’s no hidden romance to the character, nothing that would draw us in. He and Robert do go back to the pharmacy (for a scene that seems torn out of a bad ’80s comedy), and then Robert takes Wallace over to his family’s house on Christmas morning. Why would he do this? It’s supposed to speak to how alienated he is from his folks (who are played, rather likably, by Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia), but that’s the kind of kneejerk anti-suburban ‘tude that’s been faking up indie movies since “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
There are moments when “Funny Pages” recalls certain grunge-indie landmarks, like the early transgressive Todd Solondz films or Ronald Bronstein’s fearless “Frownland” (2007), a study in loserdom that never shrinks from reality. (Bronstein is one of the producers here.) But Robert’s fixation on Wallace, the cracked relic who never was, is just a conceit we have to roll with (even though it’s the heart of the film). “Funny Pages” wants to be about comic-book love, and at times it is, but the movie is working so hard to be disreputable that it lets the love get steamrolled.