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American Splendor   A

Fine Line Features

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writers: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff.

Review by Rob Vaux

A row of children stand in front of a 1950s Cleveland tract home, ready for their Halloween candy. The housewife leans over as she counts off the tiny superheroes in front of her: Superman, Batman and Robin, the Green Lantern... and one grouchy little 10-year-old dressed in the same clothes he wears to school every day.

"And who are you supposed to be?" the housewife asks.

"I'm Harvey Pekar," he says matter-of-factly. "From the neighborhood."

The joke is that Harvey -- complete with skunky jacket, terminal scowl, and fierce pride in his warts-and-all self -- would grow up to be a justifiable addition to that four-color assembly. As the creator and star of the underground comic American Splendor, he rendered his own life as a cynical observation on contemporary society. He also helped usher in the concept of comics for adults, joining such luminaries as Robert Crumb and Jim Woodring as pioneers in their field. The movie version of his work, from documentary filmmakers Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, adroitly brings Harvey's autobiographical style to funny, heartfelt life.

As played both by Paul Giamatti (during the bulk of the proceedings) and himself (in a clever series of voice-overs and interviews), "our man" is continually underwhelmed by the banalities surrounding him. Smart but not well-educated, possessing sophisticated tastes but a revulsion for elitism, he works a cheerless job as a file clerk for a Cleveland hospital. His apartment is faded and dull, his life a series of "reliable disappointments" capped by two busted marriages and a slowly failing voice. But he has some joys as well, fueled by obsessive compulsion and a burning intellect. He loves old jazz 78s, scouring garage sales for hidden treasures, then letting them stack up in his apartment. His interest soon puts him into contact with Crumb (James Urbaniak), an up-and-coming artist with some weird predilections of his own. Harvey convinces his new friend to help illustrate a new comic that he's writing, centered on his day-to-day existence. The result gives his genius a natural outlet... and its success draws the attention of an unsentimental fan, Joyce (Hope Davis), who eventually becomes an oddly perfect soulmate.

The attraction of a figure like Harvey stems both from his ordinary surroundings, and the way he finds such brilliant poetry within them. Berman and Pulcini draw us into to his endearing pessimism not by laughing at it, but by demonstrating the quiet dignity it lends him. Their technique carries no preconceptions, and they take pains to present the man as objectively as possible, as befits their fly-on-the-wall background. We understand him through what he reveals, not what they tell us. Giamatti's terrific performance transitions seamlessly into the real Harvey's periodic appearances and excerpts from the comic (blended into the drama using subtle special effects), resulting in an engrossing portrait as memorable as it is bittersweet.

American Splendor also excels as a meditation on celebrity and how fame (or at least notoriety) can change a person. Here again, their choice of subject proves uncanny. Like any good documentarian, Harvey realizes how the act of observation changes the object being observed -- and in his case, he fills both sides of the equation. His growing success, coupled with his obsessive need to render his own experience for public consumption ironically threatens to compromise that experience, turning his life into a working-class E! Hollywood fraud. Against that grim fate, he responds by clinging to his prickly personality and maintaining the dependable miseries that gave him his voice in the first place. He never quits his job or changes his lifestyle even though he eventually can. The money and fame mean nothing to him, rolling off his back with the same surly dismissal as a traffic ticket. It's the banalities that define his life, and which he comes to love all the more for the way they bring the good things into context. That salty wisdom strikes through the artificial sheen that's been spread across our post-millennial culture, reminding us of the real world that we've tried to hide behind the pages of People. American Splendor is daring in the quiet way it never draws attention to itself, a one-of-a-kind wake-up call that begins and ends with Harvey Pekar. Without him, there is no movie; with him, there's a movie you can't resist.

Review published 08.11.2003.

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