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American Splendor (R)
HBO Films and Fine Line Features
Official Site
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Producer: Ted Hope
Written by: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, based on the comic book series American Splendor by Pekar and the graphic novel Our Cancer Year by Pekar and Brabner
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar

Rating: out of 5

Throughout American Splendor, Paul Giamatti glowers. As Harvey Pekar, the grouchy real-life writer and star of the “celebrated underground comic book” American Splendor, Giamatti’s every facial expression and body posture exhibit a simmering cauldron of rage, a fury rendered harmless only through the impotence of its possessor. Giamatti’s Pekar is visibly angry when he eats his cereal, sits in his office, or pushes his cart through the supermarket, but never more so than when he walks the streets of his native Cleveland. Scene after scene finds him walking alone against a cold, overcast backdrop—it is seemingly always late fall or early winter in American Splendor—almost vibrating with an energy that, he fears, will never be put to good use.

These expressive images in which nothing really happens linger long after the movie is over, which is only fitting as the film is fundamentally less about what Pekar does and more about what he thinks. The American Splendor comic book, first published in 1976 and still issued today, is written by Pekar to describe his everyday experience, in which he lives in a cramped, crowded, and dirty apartment, collects records, and works as a file clerk in the VA hospital. The film’s action, however, begins before the book is even conceived. In the early 1970s, Pekar’s is an undistinguished life, one in which he uses bitterness and anger to fend off loneliness and despair. His thoughtful observations and gallows humor, however, demand an outlet, and Pekar eventually comes up with the idea to write a comic book about everyday life. Giamatti plays the “young Harvey” in the narrative portions, but American Splendor never strays too far from the actual Pekar, who is also featured prominently in the film. He does voiceovers and interviews, and documentary-style footage of his contemporary life punctuates the ongoing storyline. The film gives a similar treatment to Pekar’s wife Joyce (Davis), coworker Toby (Friedlander), and adopted daughter Danielle.

The American Splendor film is at least three different things: a movie about the comic book American Splendor, what it is, and how it came to be; a page-to-screen adaptation of the comic, which is based on the life of Pekar; and a biography of Pekar himself. But art and identity being what they are, Pekar the writer, Pekar the comic book character, and Pekar the documentary subject are not exactly the same person. Rather than attempting to capture the “real” Harvey Pekar, however, married couple and first-time narrative directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have embraced the complexities and disparities of his separate but interrelated identities. In fact, the comic book itself has long anticipated such a theme; Pekar cannot draw to save his life, and the different illustrators who work on the book can make him look significantly different from one story to the next. Berman and Pulcini have stated that one goal they have for the movie is to capture the sense of “multiple Harveys” that the comic book projects.

This strategy leads to some serious tampering with the conventions of narrative film. In one scene, Giamatti and Friedlander, as Pekar and Toby, finish a conversation, then walk off the set only to witness another exchange—between the real Pekar and Toby. Another example concerns Pekar’s well-known appearances on David Letterman’s show. One of Pekar’s televised conversations with the late-night host is acted out by Giamatti, while others are depicted using the actual footage featuring, of course, Pekar. Clearly the film doesn’t want to get us to attached to any particular version of Harvey Pekar. It seems to suggest that Giamatti’s Pekar is just one more incarnation of the man, but, really, so is Pekar’s. While the postmodern set might enjoy having this point made (again), and longtime fans of the comic book will love seeing so much of Pekar, others might find that the “multiple Harveys” aspect of the film undermines the authority of Giamatti’s masterful performance.

This point, however, is only a small one to consider. American Splendor’s overall package is not to be missed. Pekar’s work and general outlook is fascinating, Giamatti’s acting is incredible, and the kooky narrative framework employed by the directors ensures that the movie has no dull spots. American Splendor is among the best movies of this year.

—Mike O’Connor

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

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Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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