Friday Night Film Review: American Splendor
American Splendor is a true story about a guy that became famous telling true stories about himself. What sounds self-indulgent and egotistical on paper ends up being charming and touching.
The late 70’s are a great period in filmmaking. The artists in charge of defining the decade changed the game, giving us Taxi Drivers and Godfathers and Mean Streets to grow up on. They pulled the film industry away from the consistently bright and happy narrative it had been stuck in since its inception. While heroes like Superman and Luke Skywalker settled civilization destroying problems, films like Annie Hall, Ordinary People and The Deer Hunter turned the dial up on introspection to the point that moviegoers began to feel like they were seeing ordinary lives, events that were very much possible.
The comic book world was also experiencing a similar revolution in the late 70’s, without creating as many household names as Hollywood was able. Robert Crumb helped launch an alternative type of comic book storytelling that was highly satirical and socially relevant. Writers discussed problems that they saw around them, documenting them as they happened and making a mockery of those letting it happen. Robert Crumb also illustrated a comic book called American Splendor, an autobiographical comic book about a file clerk from Cleveland with a love for jazz records and routine. He was a mostly-depressed, somewhat intellectual, astutely observant and painfully unflinching. His name was Harvey Pekar, and he was the most unlikely comic book protagonist the world had seen.
The story opens on a young Harvey trick or treating without a costume. When a woman asks him which superhero he is supposed to be, he answers with “I’m not a superhero. I’m Harvey Pekar.” With that, the tone is set for the whole movie. Harvey Pekar cut out his niche by staying unyieldingly himself. An everyman in that every man wants to be able to remain true to themselves and try and find happiness, but still completely unique in the way that everyone is unique.
Harvey meets Robert Crumb, begins writing his story and the film starts in earnest, peeking into the scenes that mark the passing of years.
Harvey Pekar publishes one American Splendor a year, on average, but always keeps back copies in stock. He is able to gain a strong following in the underground community, but keeps his job as a file clerk because even with his popularity a comic book writer can't make a living. His grumpy attitude makes him mostly unlikeable, which leaves him lonely and twice divorced. He spends his days working, writing American Splendor, reading and listening to jazz.
When a female employee at a comic book shop in Delaware can’t find the latest issue of American Splendor, she contacts the writer. A pen pal relationship begins and it quickly turns into phone calls. Joyce enters his life full-time, and like that they’re married.
Pekar finds some degree of proper fame through David Letterman. Eventually, he discovers he has cancer and a graphic novel is written to document the experience. Twenty five years of comics in, cinema and art finally meet, and American Splendor the film is born.
The film reaches most of the highlights on that journey and does it in as surprisingly charming and personal a way as the source material. It mimics the comic in knowing that it is documenting itself and doesn’t try to hide that fact, to its credit.
Paul Giamatti plays Pekar with just enough ticks and peculiarities to elevate the character to a movie level without forcing it to become a caricature. Hope Davis picks up the right traits to believably create the “Olive Oyl/Annie Hall” Joyce that accompanies him on his life’s journey. Judah Friedlander, the guy with a different trucker hat on every episode of 30 Rock, completely channels Pekar’s hopelessly nerdy best friend, Toby.
The film is narrated by the real Harvey Pekar, and interviews with Harvey, Joyce and Toby are sprinkled conservatively throughout the film. This could seem confusing, but it works seamlessly. Giamatti’s Pekar is played perfectly as a character in a story, while the real Pekar stays natural and fresh with shots that linger long to pick up his curious ramblings. Where American Splendor was an autobiographical comic book, the film American Splendor is a biographical film made by documentarians about an autobiographical comic. The story construction is unique and designed in a way that could only work with this kind of story. After the film was made, the comic book writer wrote a comic book about the making of the movie that was about his comic book that was about him. As expected.
Where this movie succeeds most admirably is that it never presumes anything. Like the modest hero the film centers on, the movie never aspires to be a sweeping romance or an epic love story. It doesn’t attempt to take too much dramatic license or force emotion. It’s a document following the life of a man with a little bit of insight and an outlet to get it to the world in a creative way. It doesn’t need to be anything more.
Part of the focus of the film is the real Harvey Pekar discussing his thoughts about the film as it is being made. While those sections are effective in bringing the question to light, the filmmakers (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini) do themselves proud by answering it with more subtle details. Two examples really stand out. The first is Giamatti watching a stage production of American Splendor. On stage, Molly Shannon and Donal Logue are performing as Harvey and Joyce. It is interesting to watch such a solid actor fit into a role where he has to be uncomfortable watching another actor portray him, while at the same time knowing that he is doing the exact thing that is making his character uncomfortable, to the man it was done to in the first place. Art may imitate life may imitate art may imitate life, but that is certainly one of the strangest places an actor has ever had to take themselves. (side note: The play’s theme song is performed by Eytan Mirsky. He also performs the title song for The Tao of Steve, a sensational indie romcom that also features Donal Logue, this time in a starring role. Check out that film, as well as Eytan Mirsky’s other music when you get the time.)
The second example is in the background. During an interview between Toby, the walking nerd blueprint, and Harvey, the unabashed cynic, Toby explains loneliness to Harvey in a way only he can. Behind them, Giamatti sits in a chair listening. As Toby rambles, Giamatti is forced to hide his face to avoid laughing at the unintentionally comic delivery of Toby and ruining the shot, because he knows that there is no second take. This is as real as it gets. These two people who have had moments immortalized in print are in the midst of one of those moments and it is unlikely that repetition would improve it enough to do it justice.
The production design in the film is outstanding and any future people that want to know exactly what Cleveland looked like in the 70’s and 80’s need look no further than this film. Every shot breathed the real locations and use of actual footage from the era, thanks to both MTV and Letterman, locks in the time frame.
If I had to find one fault with the film, it’s with the only staged production of Letterman’s show with Paul Giamatti. A string of successful appearances on the show made Pekar an audience favorite and the film uses the actual footage for those scenes. Pekar’s final appearance, where he famously curses out David Letterman before storming off stage, wasn’t cleared for use thanks to industry politics – and possibly Letterman’s ego. The scene is essential to the film, but the fact that it isn’t archival footage makes it the only section of the film that actually feels fake.
American Splendor is not a typical comic book movie. Just the opposite, it is the story about a man that gave up trying to be a superhero long before his peers and ended up being a hero to the people closest to him.
Not only is it a great comic book movie, it is a great movie.
Final Grade: A
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