Funny Pages

Wallace (Michael Mahan, left) is a failed comic book artist who reluctantly mentors an aspiring artist (Daniel Zolghadri) in "Funny Pages." 

There are plenty of stories about aspiring artists who come across a hero of theirs who has turned their back on the world and gone into seclusion. As the aging master reluctantly mentors the young upstart, the master rekindles his passion for his art. It's your classic “Finding Forrester” or “Wonder Boys.”

Owen Kline’s “Funny Pages” is defiantly, hilariously, grotesquely not that sort of movie.

The grungy black comedy has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and first come, first served. The movie is also available to rent on VOD. 

Daniel Zolghadri plays Robert, a wannabe underground cartoonist who chafes at the nagging of his disapproving parents, who want him to finish high school and study something respectable at college. His only champion is his art teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who is willing to strip naked in the classroom at the drop of a hat to help Robert practice his figure drawing. Yikes.

When the teacher dies in a car accident, Robert is propelled to drop out of school and move to New York to seek his artistic fortune. He makes it to Trenton, New Jersey, renting a room (actually, half a room) from two sweaty middle-aged men in what may be the dirtiest apartment ever captured on celluloid. Kline and cinematographer Sean Price Williams have an eye for grungy details, from the eerie glow of an algae-choked fish tank to the chocolate rain of droplets from a disgusting shower head.

Robert gets a job working in a comic book store, where he’s subjected to the trivial arguments of diehard customers, and as a recorder in a public defender’s office. It’s there he meets Wallace (Matthew Mahan), a sad sack defendant who Robert recognizes as a successful comic book artist from the 1990s.

Well, a successful comic book colorist. Well, a successful comic book colorist’s assistant, and that’s enough to make Robert fanboy over the perturbed, touchy Wallace, begging him for advice and offering to pay him for art lessons. Robert’s misguided hero worship of Wallace builds into several cringeworthy comic setpieces, culminating in a disastrous Christmas at Robert’s parents’ house.

“Funny Pages” was produced by Josh and Benny Safdie (“Uncut Gems”) and Ronald Bronstein (“Frownland”). Kline, a former child actor (he was the kid in the “The Squid and the Whale”) shares their love of society’s oddballs, and he finds humor and pathos in these characters without valorising them. Sometimes somebody is an outcast of society just because they’re super annoying.

Throughout the film, Robert carries with him a set of smutty Depression-era parodies of old comic strips, which he insists have artistic merit. Similarly, “Funny Pages” looks at some unsavory, unlovable people and places and tries to find the beauty in them. Or, at least, the comedy.

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