American Splendor

on August 15, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “American Splendor” is a model of the possibilities intrinsic to independent film. Part biopic, part documentary, part comic-book adaptation, the film is a hybrid film unlike any other.

Character actor Paul Giamatti ravishes his role as Harvey Pekar, the author of the underground comic book after which the film is named. By day he works as a file clerk at the VA hospital with his wacky friends--self-professed nerd Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander, in an unabashedly geeky performance) among them. By night he recounts the torturous monotony and everyday frustrations--down to the maddening old Jewish lady in line at the grocery store--in a strip illustrated by clumsy stick figures. His friend Robert Crumb likes his ideas and offers to draw the characters, and a hit comic book is born. Despite critical acclaim, Harvey never makes enough money to quit his job as a file clerk, and his strip continues to portray his mundanities there as well as his relationship with his wife Joyce (Hope Davis) and his bout with cancer.

Throughout, a cartoon version of himself visits Harvey, illustrating quite literally the cantankerous thoughts batting about in his brain. It is a visual flair that adds a witty flavor to the film. Meanwhile, though, the film also is narrated by the real-life Harvey Pekar, and the filmmakers have concocted staged recording sessions in which they interview him and the real Joyce and the real Toby--a true delight. Weaved in as well are actual clips from Pekar's infamous appearances on David Letterman, with the exception of his final visit, when his outspoken political leanings and disgust with himself at the thought of schilling his comic for the amusement of others resulted in a belligerent confrontation.

It is because such footage is included that one can fully appreciate Giamatti's performance. While not a dead ringer for Pekar, the actor has accutely captured his perpetual sneer, grouchy demeanor and questionable personal hygiene.

It is also worth noting a seemingly extraneous interlude in which, against a bare, white backdrop, the cinematic Harvey muses on the other Harvey Pekars listed in the Cleveland phonebook. He is legitimately puzzled by the existence of Harvey Pekars in his hometown, and, although he's never met these men who share his name, he is genuinely saddened when he hears that one of them has passed away. “Who are these people? What's in a name? Who is Harvey Pekar?” he asks. It's a question he attempts to answer throughout the film, throughout his comics, throughout his life. Starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak and Judah Friedlander. Directed and written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Produced by Ted Hope. A Fine Line release. Biopic. Not yet rated. Running time: 100 min

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