American Splendor (2003)


Ebert: Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

American Splendor is a weird and interesting little film.  It's the film biography of a guy named Harvey Pekar that mixes reality with animation, real life individuals with the actors who portray them and in one scene we even hear the real  Pekar narrating while the actors playing him and his wife watch other actors portray them in a short lived live action play that is based on the comic book, American Splendor, that is the chronicle of his life.  It's this unique blending of the real world and the filmmakers representation of it that gives movie critics like Roger Ebert such a thrill.  

The story of Harvey's life is basically the tale of a slovenly curmudgeon who works as a file clerk at a V.A. Hospital in Cleveland.  Through a bizarre series of coincidences he is befriended in the 1970's by underground cult comic artist Robert Crumb who inspires Pekar to scribble his rants into blank comic book cells that Crumb and an assortment of his artist colleagues illustrate.  The comic, American Splendor,  becomes an underground hit and Pekar is eventually invited to be a re-occurring guest on the David Letterman show during the 1980's.  Prior to the Letterman appearances we meet Joyce Brabner, a big fan of Pekar's comic, who comes to visit Harvey and immediately marries him.  We also meet some of Harvey's co-workers who are featured in the autobiographical comic.  

I agree with the reviews that are awed by the architecture of this film.   It is a fascinating achievement of balance and amalgamation.  The directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have created something singularly unique and should be rewarded for their effort.  

The problem I had with the film is that Harvey Pekar is not a character you can enjoy.  His life is a dirty, empty, meaningless, angry, hideous wretchedness.  This is a person who is too bitter to commit suicide but someone who you want to see put out of his misery.  The problem is Harvey doesn't want to die.  He's like a plague of despair and his only consolation is that by way of his comic and TV appearances he was able to spread his despondency to others.  

The actors do a fab job in portraying the real life characters of Havey's life.  Their brilliance is best captured in scenes like the one where we see Paul Giamatti play Harvey and Judah Friedlander play his super-nerd co-worker Toby Radloff as they share a conversation and a bag of gourmet jelly beans.  At the end of the scene the actors walk off set over to a couple chairs in the background while in the foreground the real Harvey and Toby share a box of gourmet jelly beans and critique the scene.  

Judah Friedlander's portrayal of Toby Radloff was my favorite part of the film.  Toby is a guy who is so nerdy that you assume he is an extreme exaggeration thrown into the film to lighten the mood but eventually you meet the real Toby and realize that Friedlander is dead on.  The scene where Toby and Harvey discuss the film Revenge of the Nerds and a scene a little later when Harvey, Joyce and Toby go see the film are absolutely hilarious until Harvey with his typical bleak darkness ruins it for himself and then tried to ruin it for Toby and Joyce as well.  This scene, while it started funny, was probably the scene that best formed my opinion of Pekar.  Toby loved Revenge of the Nerds in a way that is borderline spiritual.  Harvey was respectful of this until he saw the film and then even though he knew it would hurt Toby he couldn't stop his acerbic critique.  

Hope Davis executes an brilliant transformation in bringing Joyce Brabner to the screen and from what we see of the real Joyce in the film and from reading the reviews of the film by people who have met her, the characterization is flawless.  Giamatti also mirrors the real Pekar in an uncanny way.  James Urbaniak does a good job playing the artist Robert Crumb.  Even after watching the documentary Crumb I was able to immediately accept Urbaniak as Crumb and that is no small task.  Crumb is a really really weird guy himself.

Did I like American Splendor?  Yes it was OK.  Will you?  I don't know.  It's a fun movie to watch because of the way it was filmed but it's also difficult because Pekar is such a jerk.  Even when the end of the film offers an optimistic ray of light Pekar chimes in with a voice-over that effectively quashes it's hope for the future.  If you're feeling down and you want to see someone who is more miserable than you then American Splendor is the perfect pick-me-up.