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Funny Pages review – Safdie-produced black comedy is a repulsive delight

Owen Kline's debut owes an immense debt to the Safdie style, but finds ways to make it its own with big laughs and a fantastic cast

Across the history of Hollywood, the most exciting auteurs have often inspired new adjectives based solely on their styles, from “Cronenbergian” to “Tarantino-esque.” With the release of Owen Kline’s Funny Pages, we can now add the Safdie brothers to such rarefied company. This revolting yet irresistible new comedy was produced by the pair – and features some of their more iconic day players in minor roles – but, even outside of that, is indisputably “Safdie-esque.” Kline (the son of Kevin) conjures the same kind of immersive yet disorienting chaos and chilly East Coast visuals that so defined Heaven Knows What, Good Time, and Uncut Gems and, while it’s not quite at the level of those modern classics, it makes for a thrilling debut.

Safdie-esque protagonists are rarely likeable people, and Funny Pages happily adds to this scumbag pantheon with Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a 17-year-old cartoonist who is big into underground comics and utterly averse to politeness and pleasantries. Embarrassed by his upper-middle class roots, Robert drops out of school – where his beloved but possibly paedophilic art teacher has just died – and moves from his family’s nice Princeton apartment to New Jersey’s rougher neighbourhood of Trenton, under some vague pretence of “being real.”

What follows is less a coming of age than a “realising of age,” as Robert’s youthful naivety and smug demeanour lead him down roads of discomfort and near misses of depravity, especially when he encounters and attempts to befriend 40-something oddball Wallace (Matthew Maher). Wallace is a former professional comics artist with severe anger management issues, and this grim pairing end up just dragging each other into the gutters of New Jersey – an absolutely marvellous scene has the duo hit a new low before Kline hits you with the reveal that the entire tragic ordeal has played out on Christmas Eve.

It can be a tough watch – Robert is truly hateful, especially in his treatment of his socially inept “best friend” Miles (Miles Emanuel), and there are some disgusting sights on display – but Kline turns this repulsion into big laughs with great frequency. The apartment that Robert shares with two indefinably creepy older men in particular is a masterclass in anxious comedy, the bizarre rituals and tangibly muggy heat of the place both oppressive and hilarious, everyone going about their evenings just drenched in sweat all the time.

Kline’s camera practically skitters through these scenes, he and DOP Sean Price Williams (who also shot Good Time) capturing that authentic ‘70s style that is so evident in the Safdie oeuvre. Like the films that inspired it, Funny Pages doesn’t just look and sound like it could come from that era, but has the anarchic and scrappy feel of New Hollywood – helped by Kline’s choice to set the film vaguely in the early 2000s, keeping smartphones out of his story.

Though you might find yourself wondering at points why you’re watching something so gleefully horrible, there’s always a big laugh around the corner and the whole thing is terrifically well-acted. It’s a really great (and exceptionally well-cast) ensemble, though first among equals has to be Josh Pais, who is just sublime as Robert’s exasperated yet realistic dad who realises he can probably outlast his son’s stupid bout of acting out before welcoming him home. The debts Funny Pages owes to the Safdies are admittedly immense, but more of that energy is always profoundly welcome in Hollywood and it serves as a fantastic introduction to Kline, clearly an auteur of his own in the making. Get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a thrilling career.

Funny Pages is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 16 September.

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