The biggest problem with Funny Books, the second film from Austin-based production company Twitchy Dolphin, is also the aspect it makes the least sense to criticize. Complaining that this film, which follows the lives of three comic-book-store employees, makes too many geek references is like griping about the gratuitous hardcore sex in Deep Throat. Funny Books features the appropriate amount of hardcore sex for its subject matter (as in zero), but it somehow manages to reference more pop-culture ephemera than should be legally allowed in a 90-minute span, even in a film about people who base their entire existence on the stuff. Before the opening credits roll, we get riffs on 24 and James Bond and really obvious, tired ones at that. Some allusions seem dictated by setting (the ongoing battle between DC and Marvel fans), and a few are ridiculous unto awesome (a customer who talks only in a fake movie-trailer-guy voice, a rival shop clerk who’s appropriated the identity of Superfriends’ Solomon Grundy), but many are so familiar they’ve become predictable and tedious with overuse. (How many more times must we watch characters reenact the statue-snatching scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark?) And all too often, the film’s guilty of the unforgivable Epic Movie sin — passing off the reference itself as a punchline. A customer who delivers a lengthy monologue demanding an issue of White Hating Coon from Chasing Amy, for example, is dismissed as “some guy who’s seen too many Kevin Smith movies.”
The meta-joke here, of course, is that Funny Books writer-director James Christopher invites the same criticism. Like Smith’s Clerks, with its memorable argument over a minor Star Wars plot point, Funny Books seems at least as interested in examining the impact pop culture has on average people as it is in contributing something new to the zeitgeist, but Christopher’s film absent of its reference points would probably cease to exist.
The plot is simple: Comic-store employee and frustrated comic artist Wally (Morris) must choose between girlfriend Mary (Dunbar) and friend Gwen (Larson) (just like Spider-Man, get it?) while his co-workers Felicia (Chan) and Arthur (Shirley) try to recover their boss’s missing copy of Action Comics #1 before he sells the store. The romantic angle quite expectedly pits unsupportive, bitchy Mary (who, in addition to refusing to read comics and demanding Wally take a job at her dad’s advertising agency, actually tells him “I’m a princess, goddammitt, and you’re a loser!”) against Gwen, a soft-spoken Girl With Glasses. Gwen doesn’t just believe in Wally’s dreams (within seconds of seeing his work, she compares it to that of artists Michael Turner and Jim Lee), she can make them come true almost instantly, thanks to her magical girl powers. The b-story is more fun to watch — mainly because Shirley is perfectly cast as the stereotypical comic-book-store guy, too resentful of the non-nerd world to sell anything to customers he deems unworthy — but just as predictable and tacked-on. Both plots seem thrown in as an excuse for all the goofing off and comic-culture riffs, but Funny Books works best when it isn’t working toward anything. All problems aside, if you’re the right kind of geek, a film that announces plot twists with a record-scratch sound effect not once but twice, and fetishizes boning in the same room as the first Superman comic should be nigh-on critic-proof.
Funny Books screens 4 p.m. Saturday, August 15, at Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes (1255 SW Loop 410), and is available now on DVD from amazon.com.