American Splendor review by The Grim Ringler

When we think of comic book adaptations we usually tend to think about men in tight suits dashing around saving busty women from strange super-villains. Or maybe I was just fantasizing again. Hard to tell. But its only recently that we have been seeing the more avant garde comics hitting the screen ala Ghost World and now American Splendor, which not only breaks ground in which comics are adapted but in how we view films in general.

Part documentary and part non-fiction-fiction film, American Splendor tells the story of Harvey Pekar (played by himself and by Paul Giamatti, who NAILS him as far as I am concerned), an angry file clerk living in Cleveland. A lover of records, books, and seclusion (due to his failed marriages), Harvey be-friends a pre-fame Robert Crumb and watches as his friend becomes an underground comic book creator and legend, all while Harvey is languishing in a dead-end job wishing he was enjoying life for a change. While in line at a grocery store he hits upon an idea hey, he could do comics too! Hard as he works though he just cant draw to save his life but when he shows his work to his friend, Crumb eats it up, loving his odd take on his odd life and the original autobiographical story telling. The only change he wants to make is that he wants to do the art, which couldnt make Harvey happier. Harveys comic adaptation of his life, American Splendor is a hit, well, as much of a hit as an underground comic can be, and is even well received by the critics, but nothing in his life changes, much to his chagrin. Nothing changes that is until a woman who owns a comic book store in Delaware writes him a letter and the two begin a strange and awkward romance which leads to their even more sudden marriage. Harvey figures if hes married, he will finally find some happiness and stability again. Ummm, no. He is a cluttered obsessive compulsive and she is a hypochondriac and they mix like oil and water. But deep down beneath the bickering and differences its obvious they love each other, they just dont quite know how to love themselves. Harveys fame catches the eye of late night talk host David Letterman though and Harvey briefly becomes a staple on the program, his angry, defensive rants against Letterman gaining him cult popularity. This doesnt last long though as Harvey soon tires of being Lettermans punch line and thus creates a scene on what would be his last appearance. No matter what Harvey does he just cant seem to break the cycle of his life. His wife is trying to find herself, he is trying to find hope, but what they find is Cancer. Frightened and unsure how to deal with what they have to go through, and uncertain where this path will lead them, Harveys wife hits on the idea of using Harveys Cancer as material for a new comic so they can talk about what they are going through and use the comic as their outlet for everything. Harvey isnt keen on the idea at all, but when the reality of what he must go through with the chemotherapy and the shadow of death growing longer by the day, the comic book seems like the perfect thing to use as a weapon against his disease. And in doing the comic Harvey and Joyce are able to get closer to one another and manage to beat his Cancer over the course of the next year. So whats their happy ending? Is this it? If you listen to Harvey tell it, no, there is no happy ending, but deep down you can sense that even he doesnt buy that much. But then, to a man like Harvey, happy endings are the worst kind you could get.

Told with both actors and with Harvey and Joyce themselves, this film twists the world of reality and film so that you arent quite sure what to call this. The film will stop from time to time and cut to Harvey on a soundstage surrounded by props telling a story about his life. And what you see is how damn well Giamatti does at portraying this man. He doesnt look at all like the real Harvey but he becomes him, slumping his shoulders, furrowing his brow, transforming himself into this man who he suddenly does resemble. The funny thing is that, as miserably as Harvey is, you really do begin to like him, and something you cant say for R. Crumb when he had his documentary out. Harvey, as miserable as he is, wants to make Joyce happy, and wants to be happy himself, hes just happy being miserable. Hes the living incarnation of Eeyore.

But is it comedy? Well, yes and no. I would definitely say this is a comedy in that the film is set up not to make Harvey and his life seem unlivable but to make you see it through his own eyes, which is to see his life in a sort of cynical well, this is it way. But this is not your typical comedy and that will turn a lot of people off. There are no telegraphed jokes or one-liners here, its just a man living his life and realizing how very odd and ridiculous it is. Me, I thought the film was hilarious, but then I think everyones life is a bit of a comedy and a tragedy and its just a matter of how you look at it all.

The film is very well made, though the direction focuses more on the actors than on any technical trickery, and really, this film is a masterwork of editing. Splicing reality and film-fiction together into a seamless narrative in which you never really lose the surreality of this world is a hell of an achievement. The acting is also very good and both Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti do a tremendous job of creating these two people that they are portraying. Both funny and sad, you can easily see why this was a lot of critics favorite movie of the year.

The film looks good, though it certainly will never be mistaken for a tech demo disc, but the extras are sorta lame. A commentary and a brief, if odd, look at Harvey and his wife at some film festivals just serves to show what sourpusses they both really are. Bless their hearts.

This is a wonderful film and one I cannot recommend enough. If you love off beat comedies and strange, sad, lovably odd characters then brother, this is the movie for you. I am sorry I didnt see this sooner and think this will only gain more of an audience on video. Characters like Harvey, with all their quirks and oddities are perfect for the movies and could only occur in real life.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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