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Virtue Signaling 

"Breaking" is lost in its own forgettable messaging, while the shaggy, coming-of-age film "Funny Pages" finds a real voice.

click to enlarge Daniel Zolghadri in "Funny Pages," a coming-of-age film by writer-director Owen Kline that recalls cult work by Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World").

Daniel Zolghadri in "Funny Pages," a coming-of-age film by writer-director Owen Kline that recalls cult work by Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World").

Abi Damaris Corbin’s “Breaking” is undeniably virtuous.

It has important issues on its mind, particularly the American government’s treatment of war veterans and our lack of empathy toward the mentally ill.

It also features a notable young actor who is looking to stretch his wings after a stint in the Hollywood franchise circus. And it is as boring as ever-living hell.

“Breaking” is the kind of movie that certain people, those for instance who think the words “based on a true story” actually mean anything, might feel guilty for not liking. But who, if we’re being honest, actually wants to see a virtuous movie? If you do, you’re in luck: Hollywood is pumping them out at breakneck speed these days.

In “Breaking,” John Boyega plays Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine who held up a Wells Fargo branch in Marietta, Ga., claiming to have an explosive that would detonate if the VA didn’t issue him the monthly disability payment that he was denied. There was a real Brown-Easley. And Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah honor the stranger details of his story: Brown-Easley trading hostages for cigarettes, calling TV reporters for exposure, and the obscenely low amount of his demand, $892.00, to cover the denied check and no more. More money, or cash from the bank, was turned down.

In real life, Brown-Easley is a tragic and poignant figure, a mentally disturbed man failed by multiple bureaucratic entities. In “Breaking,” however, his story feels like just another set up for a bank hostage movie. Like many contemporary filmmakers, Corbin is only concerned with theme. There are many speeches about the VA, and many repetitive close-ups of actors delivering expositional dialogue, in the tradition of TV shows that value information over texture. There’s no sense of life, no sense of any of these people existing outside the confines of this immediate scenario.

Watching “Breaking,” it’s difficult not to think of the classic socially-conscious bank robbery film, 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” which abounds in the messy details that “Breaking” fatally lacks. See kids, some filmmakers used to care about the story outside of the story, and about characters who are more than cue cards boasting their talking points.

The New York City of “Dog Day Afternoon” is festering and alive, while the Georgia of “Breaking” appears to be asleep. As cops and reporters surround the Wells Fargo building, Corbin can’t work up any sense of chaos. The recently deceased Michael Kenneth Williams, a wonderful actor, plays the hostage negotiator here, and he has almost nothing to do. Ditto Jeffrey Donovan as the obligatory evil officer, a company man who has no feeling for Brown-Easley’s plight. This script barely even has enough energy or imagination to set up a conflict between Williams and Donovan.

Forget “Dog Day Afternoon”—that’s an impossible hurdle for a modern filmmaker. Let’s try 1998’s “The Negotiator,” a blend of “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Fugitive” that is utterly absurd yet capable of establishing rudimentary human bonds between its characters. Twenty years later, I still remember Paul Giamatti’s desperate bluster from that film, as well as J.T. Walsh’s smug evasiveness. I remember a woman saying, with eerie pride, that this isn’t the first time a gun has been pointed at her face. I saw “Breaking” last night and the only off-message anecdote I can recall is Brown-Easley talking to his daughter about “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t modern filmmakers understand that these details, these breaks from procedure, actually bolster their agendas? Give an audience a reprieve from the sermon, a little candy, and they are grateful.

A big part of the dead, echo chamber quality of “Breaking” has to do with Boyega. The film is essentially structured as a one-man show—a final dispatch from a damned man. One doesn’t have to know Brown-Easley’s story to immediately gather that this character is mentally ill, and Boyega succumbs to that actorly vanity of using mental illness as a license to detach himself from the rest of the production. No wonder actors like playing crazy—the roles are often flamboyant and showy, which means awards, and they don’t require the hardest part of acting, which is connecting with the rest of the cast. Think “Rain Man,” in which Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for a feat of monotonality, or “Joker,” which is built on a parade of mannerisms that Joaquin Phoenix cultivated in better performances.

Brown-Easley’s agony is less explicit in “Breaking” than Boyega’s self-consciousness. Bald, somewhat bulky, Boyega bears a resemblance to Denzel Washington in “John Q,” another bank robbery movie that wanted to make a very special statement about class inequality. Boyega isn’t bad here exactly, he’s just dull—you know everything you’re going to know about his conception of Brown-Easley within the first five minutes of the movie, from his stilted gait to his paranoia to his outrage. I missed the simmering, highly internalized physicality that Boyega brought to “Red, White and Blue,” an installment of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” movie series. And where is the ferocious Boyega of “Attack the Block?” Where did that volatile young actor go?

I often dislike coming-of-age movies as much as civics lessons, but Owen Kline’s “Funny Pages” is a blistering surprise.

It brought me back to the late ‘90s, when I was a teenager watching Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” and Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch movies, with a side helping of something light and sitcom-y like Ed Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen.” “Funny Pages” has a similarly handmade feel, and it shares with Zwigoff and Jarmusch an obstinance that’s deeply human. Go a little further from the ‘90s and you may see in “Funny Pages” an affinity with “Ghost World,” which is another Zwigoff, as well as Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “American Splendor.”

Like “Crumb,” “Ghost World,” and “American Splendor,” “Funny Pages” is obsessed with people who typically don’t occupy the center ring of major motion pictures. These films are filled to the gills with kooks, with people who are too thin, fat, old, wrinkly, bulbous, weird and poor to sell the wish-fulfillment fantasies that Hollywood likes.

For all the newfound political self-consciousness in the media, for all the talk of equality across racial and sexual spectrums, the media still doesn’t like poor and ugly people. Should a poor and ugly person be deigned to be worthy of the media’s attention, it’s usually in a context of pity, revulsion, and condescension. Think of the scene in “American Splendor” where the cult cartoonist Harvey Pekar challenges David Letterman for marginalizing him as a freak. Owen Kline has an authentic allegiance to the Pekars and the Zwigoffs of the world; he loves uncultivated strangeness.

Laptops and gas prices place “Funny Pages” somewhere more or less in the present day, but its heart resides in a realm that might be defined as a flea market set in a blend of the 1950s and ‘80s. The apartments are shabby, the clothes appear to have been worn everyday for decades, and there’s a huge emphasis on tactile objects like comics and records and other collectibles. The movie is populated by the unloved who direct their unchanneled talent and emotional energy into minutiae. Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is a good-looking teenager from a prosperous family, but he’s at home with these folks. He wants to be a cartoonist, and he is a talented illustrator. Rather than finishing high school, Robert moves into an apartment basement in Trenton, New Jersey that would be right at home in a Tobe Hooper or Rob Zombie movie, and gets a job taking notes for the public defense attorney who once represented him.

Kline is the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he gave a vivid performance as a child in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” Given his privilege, then, and the fact that he’s debuting with a gloriously disreputable cult item, one can’t help but wonder if Robert’s rebellion is his own. But Kline isn’t interested in mounting a pity party, and he doesn’t feel like a tourist. Kline seems to love outlaw comics that purvey the sort of lewd fantasies that are currently unthinkable in a puritanical culture that feigns self-righteousness while continuing to grovel at the feet of the rich and famous.

“Funny Pages” internalizes the comics of Crumb and Pekar and many others, offering jolts that challenge narrative status quo. The film’s shagginess mirrors the bodies and clothes of its characters, as it is boldly loose and unformed.

What is “Funny Pages” about? Kline probably wouldn’t appreciate that question, which seeks to put his movie in a box. But, broadly, it’s about Robert’s search for a mentor figure after his teacher dies in a hilariously disturbing bit, which mixes riffs on personal expression and aesthetic with an act of physical congress that would disturb most parents. This boldly eccentric scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which resists platitudes and follows Robert as he tumbles into a variety of adventures.

Throughout, Kline steadfastly avoids moralizing; suggesting that a true coming-of-age lesson would involve the recognition that life is not a series of convenient lessons. Life is chaos lived by people of greatly diverging experiences and motivations.

“Funny Pages” has a real voice. I loved simply looking at it—at the scruffy, grungy poetry fostered by Kline and cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who is a titan of modern American independent cinema. It’s exhilarating to be relieved by a movie of the pressure to constantly consume beautiful images. There’s vitality in the margins of existence, vigor and passion to devoting your attention to, say, the borders of the panels of a comic no one but a few reads or notices.

There is also madness and bitterness in such pursuits, which Kline doesn’t ignore. It’s his willingness to see misery in full bloom that keeps “Funny Pages” from turning into a trite rich man’s fantasy of the “little people.” It loves the thorns and the petals of art-making, of living.

“Breaking” opens at Movieland tomorrow. “Funny Pages” is coming soon to Video On Demand.

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