Review: ‘Funny Pages,’ starring Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel, Josh Pais, Maria Dizzia, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Ron Rifkin

September 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Matthew Maher and Daniel Zolghadri in “Funny Pages” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Funny Pages”

Directed by Owen Kline

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, the comedy/drama film “Funny Pages” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager defies his parents’ wishes by dropping out of high school and moving out of the family home to become a professional comic-book illustrator, and he meets a very eccentric would-be mentor along the way.

Culture Audience: “Funny Pages” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in low-key, quirky comedy/drama movies about comic book enthusiasts.

Daniel Zolghadri, Michael Townsend Wright and Miles Emanuel in “Funny Pages” (Photo courtesy of A24)

The comedy/drama “Funny Pages” is a very offbeat love letter to comic book fanatics and the extreme decisions some artists will make to pursue their dreams. The movie’s tone is inspired more by Charlie Kaufman than by Kevin Smith. “Funny Pages” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

“Funny Pages” is the feature-film directorial debut of writer/director Owen Kline, who is also known as an actor who had roles in 2001’s “The Anniversary Party” and 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” when Kline was a child. These experiences as a child actor no doubt informed the creation of “Funny Pages” protagonist Robert Bleichner (played by Daniel Zolghadri), an eccentric teen who wants to grow up fast and become an illustrator of comic books and comic strips that have sexually explicit, raunchy comedy.

Robert, who’s about 16 or 17 years old, lives with his parents Lewis (played by Josh Pais) and Jennifer (played by Maria Dizzia) in a typical middle-class home in Princeton, New Jersey. The beginning of “Funny Pages” is an indication of some of the weirdness throughout the movie. Robert is in a private meeting at the home of his art teacher Mr. Katano (played by Stephen Adly Guirgis), who is a fan of the type of rude and raunchy illustrations that Robert wants to draw.

Robert confides in Mr. Katano that he plans to drop out of high school, because Robert thinks that the places where he wants to work will only care about his talent and portfolio, not if he has a high school diploma. However, Mr. Katano doesn’t think that Robert has a strong-enough identity that comes through in Robert’s drawings. Mr. Katano tells Robert: “Everything in your portfolio needs to be clearly coming from who you are … Who do you draw for?”

Robert doesn’t have a definite answer to that question. Mr. Katano knows that Robert likes to draw pictures of naked people. The meeting takes a very unorthodox turn when Mr. Katano asks Robert if he wants to draw Mr. Katano. Robert says yes, and without hesitation, Mr. Katano taks off all of his clothes, except for a pair of socks. He stands up on his desk and tells Robert to do a nude sketch of him. Robert is a little surprised, but he does the sketch with a little discomfort.

Even though there was nothing sexual about Mr. Katano’s offer, it’s still extremely inappropriate for a teacher to get naked in front of an underage child who’s a student of the teacher’s. Mr. Katano knows it, and he has second thoughts about what he just did, especially after Robert finishes the sketch and quickly leaves because Robert says that he has to be home by a certain time. While Robert is walking home on a street near an expressway, Robert sees that Mr. Katano is following Robert in Mr. Katano’s car.

With the car window rolled down on the driver’s side, Mr. Katano tells Robert that he wants to make sure that what happened with the nude sketch session wasn’t something that made Robert feel threatened or embarrassed. Robert assures Mr. Katano that he thinks everything is just fine, and that what happened won’t change their student/teacher relationship. And then, out of nowhere, Mr. Katano’s car gets hit by another car speeding in the opposite direction. Mr. Katano is killed instantly.

After the funeral, Robert breaks into Mr. Katano’s home to steal some personal items that he’s sure that Mr. Katano (who lived alone and had no known relatives) would want him to have. A house alarm goes off, and Robert is arrested for the break-in. He has a public defender named Cheryl (played by Marcia DeBonis), who thinks Robert is an adorable and misunderstood kid, even though Robert is not as meek and nice as Cheryl initially thinks he is. She is able to get the charges dismissed by arguing to the court that Robert did the break-in out of grief, and he only took items that he thought were rightfully his. (Apparently, Mr. Katano didn’t leave a will.)

Mr. Katano’s death, Robert’s legal problems and the dismissal of Robert’s criminal case all happen in the first 20 minutes of “Funny Pages” and shown with some choppy editing. By the end of those 20 minutes, viewers will either be turned off from seeing the rest of this movie or curious to see what will happen next with this very unusual teenager. Many people in Robert’s life are skeptical that he will “make it” as a professional illustrator, but he is unwavering in trying to make his dream come true.

Much to his parents’ disapproval, Robert is so eager to get started on this career, he drops out of high school, moves out of the family home, and gets his own place: a rented room in a dirty and dumpy house in Trenton, New Jersey. Robert’s creepy and disheveled landlord Barry (played by Michael Townsend Wright), who also lives in the house, knows that Robert is underage, but Barry doesn’t care as long as Robert pays the rent. Robert shares the room with another weirdo tenant named Steven (played by Cleveland Thomas Jr.), who doesn’t talk much, but when Steven does talk, it’s often out loud to himself.

In his quest to become a comic book illustrator and in order to pay his bills, Robert takes a part-time job working at a comic book store. Robert also gets a part-time job working as an administrative assistant to Cheryl, who is highly amused when she finds out that Robert expresses his naughty side in his illustrations. Robert’s best friend (and only friend) is a former classmate named Miles (played by Miles Emanuel), a mild-mannered nerd who is in awe of Robert being able to have so much independence at a young age.

It’s through Robert’s job with Cheryl that Robert soon meets a hot-tempered, mentally ill man named Wallace Schearer (played by Matthew Maher), who was an assistant colorist at Image Comics. Wallace, who is one of Cheryl’s clients, got into trouble for having an emotional meltdown at a pharmacy and committing vandalism on the property. Robert meets Wallace when Wallace arrives at Cheryl’s office for an appointment.

Even though Wallace clearly has mental health problems, Robert is immediately intrigued when he finds out that Wallace used to work for Image Comics. It’s at this point in the movie that you know Wallace and Robert will go back to the pharmacy where Wallace committed his crime. Former “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” star Louise Lasser makes a disturbing cameo as a drugged-out and drooling pharmacy customer named Linda, who demands that Robert give her a Percocet. Ron Rifkin also makes a brief appearance in “Funny Pages,” as Robert’s unnamed grandfather.

Because of Wallace’s experience working at a well-known comic book publishing company, Robert becomes fixated on getting Wallace to mentor Robert. The rest of “Funny Pages” involves Robert’s strange encounters with people in the Trenton area and his desperate attempts to become Wallace’s student/protégé. Although none of the acting is terrible in “Funny Pages,” don’t expect to see a lot of pleasant characters in this movie.

There’s some violence, nudity and very dark comedy in this odd little film, but for people who are open to this type of movie-watching experience, “Funny Pages” has enough to hold viewers’ interest. “Funny Pages” is both a satire and a tribute to the single-minded passion that can consume artists to express themselves in their art. The movie has several mentions about whether or not an artist’s work has “soul.” In provocative and peculiar ways, “Funny Pages” examines if artists who pour their souls into their work might also lose their souls in the process.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.

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