Thursday, December 15, 2011

#486. American Splendor (2003)

Directed By: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar

Tag line: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff"

Trivia:  NBC would not lease out the actual Late Night with David Letterman footage where Harvey Pekar finally lashed out at David Letterman, so the scene had to be recreated with actors

I laughed my ass off the first time I saw American Splendor. I was so completely taken in by the film’s distinctive approach that every witty line, every humorous moment struck the perfect cord. 

And when I wasn't laughing, I found I couldn’t stop smiling. 

American Splendor is the story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), a file clerk working at a Veterans Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, who became something of a celebrity in the world of underground comics. 

Shortly after divorcing his second wife (Vivienne Benesch), Harvey met Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), one of the creative forces behind the underground movement. With Crumb’s help, Harvey created his own comic book, titled American Splendor, which, issue after issue, did little more than examine the rather ordinary life of its author, Harvey Pekar. 

Aside from landing him a handful of appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, American Splendor didn't bring Harvey the fame and fortune he dreamed it would. But it did deliver one bit of good luck in the form of Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who worked at a comic book store in Delaware and was a big fan of American Splendor. After exchanging several letters, Harvey invited Joyce to visit him in Cleveland, thus clearing the way for her to become the next Mrs. Harvey Pekar. 

The style on display in American Splendor is as unique as its protagonist. Along with Paul Giamatti's excellent performance as the 'fictional' Harvey Pekar, we catch the occasional glimpse of the real Harvey, who acts as the film's narrator and even shows up in several documentary-like scenes. 

But if two Harveys aren't enough for you, we also meet a number of the animated Harveys, as he's appeared in American Splendor over the years. Since the comic’s inception, a variety of artists have drawn Harvey, each putting their own spin on his physique. When Harvey is trying to persuade Joyce to visit him, she admits she's a bit reluctant to do so, mostly because she doesn't know what to expect. In one issue, Harvey might be drawn to look like Marlon Brando, while other times he’s a “gorilla with a lot of stink lines around him” (Harvey is quick to point out to Joyce that these are, in fact, motion lines, and not stink lines). Like the comic that inspired it, American Splendor gives us a plethora of Harvey Pekars. 

If you think about it, Harvey Pekar’s notoriety, regardless of how minor it may have been, was something of a miracle . How often does a man with limited artistic ability (he illustrated his initial drafts of American Splendor with stick people) successfully launch his own comic book? For that matter, who among us would have the chutzpah to create an entire series of comics with ourselves as the main subject? 

Throughout the film, Harvey says that “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”. In American Splendor, he examined his “ordinary life” on a grand scale, and, happily, he took us along for the ride.


Klaus said...

Nice review! Definitely one of the most original films in years, and one which i've watched repeated times. It's also the first film where I really began to appreciate Paul Giamatti's considerable acting talents.

DVD Infatuation said...

Klaus: Thank you, sir!

It certainly is an original film, and what's amazing is it never loses its edge (at least for me). I've seen it myself about 5-6 times, and I laugh just as much now as when I saw it in the theater back in 2003.

And yes, Giamatti was superb. I was glad to see him get meatier roles in the years following this movie (SIDEWAYS is another great one)

Take care, and have a great Holiday!