American Splendor is half drama, half documentary and half animated comic book. And if that doesn't add up to you, the film might not be your cup of tea. But if you like your heroes depressed and your narratives unconventional, consider American Splendor a gift: a slightly bruised fruit basket from Cleveland.
The film is based on the real life of Harvey Pekar, a lonely hospital file clerk by day, and a lonelier record and comic book collector by night. A chance meeting with fellow comic hound Robert Crumb in Cleveland in the 1960s led to Pekar creating his own underground comic book, despite never drawing more than the most rudimentary stick figure himself. Pekar was a living thought bubble, cataloging the nagging irritations, diminished dreams and desperate cries of life's minor characters. Which, come to think of it, comprise the vast majority of the world. Crumb and other notable artists turned Pekar's melancholic humor into the ongoing comic book "American Splendor" which afforded Pekar all the fame and fortune America grants its underground comic writers. In other words, despite a National Book Award and appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Harvey Pekar didnít quit his day job.
You could accuse the film of not quite knowing how to approach itís subject. Or you can congratulate filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini for throwing caution to the wind and letting American Splendor attack every convention. We have the real life Harvey Pekar speaking to us on camera. We have actor Paul Giamatti playing Pekar as a dramatic role. We have line drawings of Pekar - or is it Giamatti? - interacting with live characters like a comic book inlay. And we have Harvey Pekar talking about how the film they are in the process of filming might change his real life. There are comic book thought bubbles that come out of Giamatti's head, including the line "Iím desperately lonely and horny as hell" as a waitress in a bleak diner pours him a cup of coffee. American Splendor wallows in lonely, bleak, desperation to the point of affection. Even when Harvey finds something resembling love in a fellow comic book fan, hypochondriac and devout misfit Joyce Brabner, played by Hope Davis, it's bathed in the resignation that misery loves company. Who else could live with these people but each other?
Throw in Giamatti playing Pekar getting cancer and you've got the cherry on a very glum sundae. Except that itís not. Giamatti and Davis are having a riot with their characters. The real life Pekar struggles unsuccessfully to contain his grin when interviewed. The filmmakers are there for Pekar's going away party as he finally leaves his file clerk job at the hospital, and it's a warm little affair, full of both hope for the future and acknowledgement of thousands of files well-filed.
American Splendor is an odd little story with a lot of moving parts. But the sum of those parts makes a surprisingly invigorating film.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 8/20/03
US - 2003