Archive Review: American Splendor (2003) – 4/5 Stars

Comic book writer Harvey Pekar would probably be the first to tell you that he only agreed to a movie about himself for the money. He denounces all things glamorous or idealistic and a moving biopic about his life would contradict him entirely. That’s why Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s choice to do an off-center biopic on Pekar in a quasi-documentary style is such a phenomenal direction for their film.

“American Splendor” features both Pekar himself doing a few on-the-set interviews and voice over narration as well as Paul Giamatti playing out key scenes in his life from befriending fellow artist Robert Crumb to meeting his wife Joyce (Hope Davis) to his odd string of appearances on David Letterman. It’s not totally committed to one style over another which is its greatest strength and a bit of a weakness. Although it’s so interesting to be able to compare the acting to the real people, at times it’s distracting and breaks the illusion. For example, the real Pekar and his semi-autistic pal Toby chat on the movie’s set while both actors playing them (Giamatti and Judah Friedlander) take five in the background.

Rarely — and certainly not this extensively — does a film open itself up to scrutiny like “American Splendor” by allowing the audience to see both reality and its own fiction. Giamatti’s performance becomes critically vulnerable with the real Pekar getting almost as much time on screen as he has, though he does do a good job juggling Pekar’s many quirks from his dying voice to his tendency to add “man” to the end of every statement.

“American Splendor” also offers a few other unique directorial choices and sequences such as comic frames in the beginning to replicate comic books and including animated Harveys and thought bubbles into live action. These are generally effective, but they lack continuity. Each scene where traditional cinema is broken get its own treatment; the shift from biopic to documentary is the only constant.

Consequently, we’ve never gotten acquainted with the focal character of another biographical film like we get to know Harvey Pekar. I think anyone who watches the film and happens to meet Harvey afterward would feel like they’d known him for years. Part of it is his natural, quirky predictability, but the other is Berman and Pulcini’s decision to give us a healthy dose of the man himself.

Much like his American Splendor comics, the story of Harvey Pekar isn’t extraordinary or fascinating but down to earth. Pekar didn’t want to be anything but ordinary and he just happened to really like the underground comic scene. The film honors that wish by being the same way, so taking the title of the comics and using it for the movie is more than fitting. It had to be a challenge to adapt someone’s autobiographical comic and make a biographical documentary about the person who wrote said comic about himself, but Berman and Pulcini make it work and in a highly original and inspiring way.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Written by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar (comics), Joyce Brabner (“Our Cancer Year”)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar


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