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American Splendor Review

By Joe Lozito

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When comic author Harvey Pekar was diagnosed with a malignant tumor, his wife Joyce Brabner prescribed a treatment more effective than chemotherapy: she told him to write a comic about the experience. "Our Cancer Year", by Mr. Pekar and Ms. Brabner is one of the sources of "American Splendor" which follows Mr. Pekar from his beginnings as a humble file clerk in the 1970s to ... well, he's still a file clerk, but he did manage to get a pretty successful underground comic series going. Joyce's advice to Harvey turns out to be indicative not only of how he deals with his illness, but also how he manages to exist from day-to-day in his otherwise dead-end job. Harvey, after forming a friendship with then-unknown artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, making Crumb much more well-adjusted than the 1994 documentary about the artist), figures he can appeal to an untapped audience by relating the everyday doldrums of his life in comic form. Mr. Crumb, among other artists, serves as illustrator.

The resulting comic series, "American Splendor (From off the streets of Cleveland)" was an underground cult hit in the late 70s and 80s. In adapting the series for the screen, writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini don't simply act out portions of the comic. Instead, they do for the film biopic what Pekar did for comics; they tear down the artifice and push the bounds of reality. From the very start of the film, as the real Mr. Pekar appears while recording a voice-over while the onscreen Pekar (played by a pitch perfect Paul Giamatti) walks the streets of Cleveland, it is clear that "Splendor" is an unconventional movie. During the film, Pekar meets and (sort of) courts Joyce (Hope Davis, ably going toe-to-toe with Mr. Giamatti in every scene), he gets some recognition as a comic book hero, he appears on the David Letterman show, and he has his bout with cancer, but the film doesn't have a plot so much as it drifts from episode to episode like issues of the comic or, to a similar extent, like life.

Mr. Giamatti and Ms. Davis seem to feed off each other, bringing out the best performances we've seen from these actors. Mr. Giamatti in particular disappears into his role. Every rasp, grunt and twitch is fascinatingly in character. It helps as well to have the real Harvey on screen too - sometimes at the same time as Mr. Giamatti. The film skillfully and easily intercuts the acted scenes with some documentary footage of the real Pekar and his friends. It seems that everyone Pekar ever came in contact with was a character. They all wound up in his comics and now, naturally, they're in his film.

The film may get a little too 'meta' when it shows Mr. Giamatti's Pekar backstage at one of his many appearances on the Letterman show. Watching the real footage of the appearance, it's clear that the real life Pekar is lucky to be portrayed so skillfully by Mr. Giamatti, who makes Pekar a much more loveable character than he ever came off as on the Letterman show. But that's also the wonder of the film. It evokes an understanding of Pekar's actions - he wasn't being rude to Letterman, he just didn't want to be a sideshow freak. But by trying to break out of the box that the media had shut him in, he only destroyed his chances for success. He wouldn't play the game, so he was relegated to the very same sideshow. But really, where else would Mr. Pekar be happy?

And, make no mistake: despite his protestations, he is happy. For all his talk about not making a "Hollywood Movie" and not resorting to a "Happy Ending", "Splendor" does prove to be uplifting. Not, of course, in a hackneyed sentimental way, but the same way Mr. Pekar's comics could be uplifting. In their utterly reliable unhappiness, we, and Mr. Pekar can find comfort.

What did you think?

Movie title American Splendor
Release year 2003
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary The trials of comic book everyman Harvey Pekar are brought to vivid life through a mix of documentary and scripted footage resulting in the most innovative and unique biopic in recent memory. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are unforgettable as Pekar and his wife.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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