AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003)
written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
comments by Tony McRae
You haven’t seen anything quite like American Splendor before, an exhilarating mixture of actors playing real people, these same real people playing themselves, and comic book drawings of these real people. What’s so exhilarating for me is the wonderful and unexpected mixture of these three elements, the drawings segueing into the live action and vice-versa.
It’s the real-life story of Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar), a file clerk in Cleveland who becomes a writer of a graphic comic book series called “American Splendor” which became a very popular favorite in the 70s and 80s. Pekar himself became a kind of cult hero, appearing on the David Letterman Show several times, sometimes with disastrous results.
The comic book stories are about Pekar’s real life experiences in which he does battle with all kinds of villains who are really just ordinary people like Pekar but who do vile things, at least from Pekar's perspective. He’s something of a misfit, yet his keen insight into the verities of daily life make up for any personal oddities he has. You want to know what his take on quotidian life is because his oblique way of seeing things opens your own eyes to the funny, the absurd, the touching. Life is totally incomprehensible, he seems to be saying, yet this does not mean it isn’t replete with meanings. I see Pekar—at least Giamatti’s Pekar—as despondent and depressed, yet unwilling to give up on life, because, who knows, he may actually learn something. It keeps him going.
"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," the real Harvey Pekar says. He adds, "Just keep on working and something's bound to turn up."
While Harvey's appears to have a contempt for things—what the French call un mépris des choses—in reality it's the banal and mundane which become the grist for his sardonic humor. By including everything—himself, his wife, his friends, his fellow workers, his phobias, his dreams and fears, in his books, everything is reduced to absurdity, and so nothing is absurd. In the final analysis, Harvey Pekar is a hopeful man.
The movie is also based on the graphic comic book Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s wife, played here by the wonderful Hope Davis, who herself has the knack of reinventing her film persona. She sees Harvey's faults, but she also learns to see the world through his comics. This is what drew her to him in the first place. As Harvey does battle with himself and his adversaries, so Joyce can face her cancer.
In the end, the "American Splendor" stories—and this movie—are soaked in values because they show us in detail the thingness of the world around us by giving us exact, precise pictures and descriptions. Though these pictures are set in the dingy neighborhoods of Cleveland, Harvey's home, he lets us see, as T. S. Eliot writes of the poet, "beneath both beauty and ugliness: to see the boredom and the horror and the glory."
The supporting cast is excellent; especially when you get to see the real people they portray and realize it’s difficult to tell them apart. In particular there’s the “world class nerd” Toby Radloff (played by Judah Friedlander). When we get to see the real Toby we just have to marvel at Friedlander's performance.
Roger Ebert said that “Movies like this seem to come out of nowhere, like free-standing miracles.” I agree. And you don’t have to be a comic book fan.
This is one of the best movies of the year. Why Paul Giamatti did not get an Oscar nomination is beyond comprehension.
Rated R for language.