Americana Movie Month: "American Splendor" Review


Americana Movie Month: "American Splendor" Review

-- Rating: R (For language)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: September 12, 2003
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Genre: Biography, comedy, and drama

The movie "American Splendor" is a clever mix of reality and fiction. It is partly based on the real-life events surrounding the life of Harvey Pekar, the author of a comic book series of the same name, but it also draws some inspiration from the fictitious stories contained Pekar's comic books. It was written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

"American Splendor" presents two Pekars: one portrayed by Paul Giamatti and the other one appearing as Pekar himself. Pekar is an angry resident of Cleveland working as a file clerk in a hospital. He has been divorced twice, suffers from extreme cleanliness, and has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He spends most of his free time with his friend Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) visiting garage sales.

During one of these garage sales outings, Pekar meets and befriends Robert Crumb (Urbaniak), an underground comic book artist. From Crumb, Pekar gets the inspiration to start a comic book project similar to Crumb's project. Unfortunately, Pekar is not as talented as he would like to be. While he can barely draw a straight line, he can craft spectacularly interesting stories, at least to Crumb. The two decide to form a partnership in which Pekar comes up with the stories and Crumb illustrates them.

Initially, the comic books do not attract a huge following. The situation changes when the books draw the attention of MTV showman David Letterman, who decides to make Pekar one of the regulars in his show. Thanks to his involvement in the show, Pekar meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), whom he soon starts to date. Their love story starts as a writing correspondence relationship but ends up in marriage. The two, however, do not always see eye to eye, because Brabner has a gigantic know-it-all attitude and Pekar, well, is just Pekar. At one point, he laughs at his friends' love for the "Revenge of the Nerds" movie.

"American Splendor" includes samples of Pekar's comics such as "Our Cancer Year," which is a realistic but comical examination of Pekar's treatment of his cancer, and the movie even contains live action scenes of his story. The cast members give a good account of their characters, especially Giamatti and Davis. In fact, these two are the source of many comical instances in the film.

Although viewers might expect of a semi-autobiographical work of art such as "American Splendor" a more linear approach in telling Pekar's story, this is not the case here. Naturally, the movie chronicles Pekar's life from his file-clerk beginnings to his working-class retiree status in Cleveland, but it does not do this in a very linear manner. The story moves from one place to another and from fiction to reality so frequently that viewers will often find it hard to tell where the latter ends and the former begins. This hybrid storytelling method may not be very convincing to everybody but is certainly entertaining.

The movie's plot is certainly interesting. It treks through a series of monologues and events that were first seen in Pekar's comic books. It also involves a background narration in Pekar's own voice, plus real life interviews. A markedly comical moment is when Giamatti enters the studio where the interviews take place to watch Pekar talk. Giamatti cannot help but grin as the man he portrays in some of the scenes speaks. Another interesting scene is where the audience gets to see the real-life Radloff. As expected, the movie also features scenes of animated sequences where Pekar and the other characters are portrayed as cartoon characters.

These are just a few of the stylistic devices used by the makers of "American Splendor" to bring the story to life. It is often difficult to depict reality accurately in movies, and this fact is also evident in "Rashomon." Possibly, this is one of the main reasons that seemingly so many angles, techniques, and takes were used in the creation of "American Splendor."

Despite its running time of more than one hour and a half, the film may leave some viewers feeling that it does not reveal as much about Pekar as it should. Is Pekar Giamatti or is he himself? Where does one persona end and the other one start? Who, really, is this man, a husband, retired file clerk, or comic book writer?

Rating: 4 out of 5