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American Splendor

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After the millions spent ruining Daredevil, the millions more spent ruining League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Ang Lee’s Hulk not really finding the audience it deserved, you’d be forgiven for being depressed about the current state of comic book cinema. Yes, the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises are in good shape. But when you hear things like the fact that Keanu Reaves is going to be playing John Constantine in the upcoming Hellblazer movie, it’s enough to make you want to take up a heroin addiction. The prospect of a Mort the Dead Teenager movie doesn’t help things either.

This is what makes American Splendor such a breath of fresh air. Based on the autobiographical comic of the same name, this movie chronicles various events in the life of Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti), a file clerk from Cleveland and a respected figure in the world of independent comics. Harvey’s a bit of a grump, a bit of a slob, and has a variety of quirks and rough edges. In other words, he’s a perfectly average human being. However, he’s managed to turn his ordinary life into an extraordinary comic book. It also makes for an extraordinary movie.

Pekar began his comic book as way of trying to achieve something beyond being just a file clerk. However, he has no drawing ability, so his first attempt at a comic was a bunch of stick figures and word balloons. Fortunately, Pekar was friends with legendary underground comic artist Robert Crumb, who offered to illustrate Pekar’s story for him. This gets the ball rolling on Pekar’s comic career, which leads to him becoming a semi-regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman and corresponding with a devoted female fan in Delaware who eventually becomes his wife.

This is not just some straightforward biography, though. There’s animated sequences, television footage, and from time to time, the filmmakers take a break from the movie and stop to interview the real Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner. Not only is the fourth wall broken, a few holes are punched in the other three as well. It’s an unusual approach to making a movie, but I think it works pretty well.

As interesting as it is to hear the perspective of the real Harvey Pekar (he also narrates the entire movie), he is sometimes in danger of being overshadowed by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti, although he looks nothing like Pekar, gives the performance of a lifetime. I’d go so far as to say that he’s going to be nominated for an Oscar. He’s that good. The scene in which he makes faces as his wife compares Revenge of the Nerds to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is more entertaining than Blade 2 and Daredevil combined.

Giamatti may be the star of this movie, but it doesn’t hurt that he has a very strong supporting cast. Hope Davis is quite good as Pekar’s wife Joyce, but I think James Urbaniak and Judah Friedlander also deserve special mention. Urbaniak makes an all-too-brief appearance as Robert Crumb, and really manages to get his mannerisms down pat. The man must have the documentary Crumb committed to memory. And while at first I thought Friedlander was just chewing on the scenery as Pekar’s nerdy co-worker Toby Radlof, he wasn’t. The real Toby Radlof shows up in one of the interview segments, and Friedlander’s portrayal of him is eerily accurate.

The movie seems to be on a limited release schedule (it’s only playing at the local art theater in Philadelphia), so I have no idea if it will be coming to a theater near you. But if you get a chance to see American Splendor, please do so. I believe it is the finest comic book adaptation to hit the big screen since Ghost World and a contender for one of the best comic book movies ever.

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About Chris Puzak

  • Steve Rhodes

    It is very good. I’ll write something soon.

    Right now, it is is 32 theaters (and did almost as well as T3 which is in over 400 – I’d vote for Harvey over Arnold any day).

    There may be info about the cities it is playing in and which it will expand to at the website (it is flash heavy and takes a while to load, so I can’t check now).

  • Steve Rhodes

    Here’s a list of theaters it is playing in including where it is expanding to on Friday and Sept. 12th.

  • Augustine

    Have just seen a special screening of ‘American Splendor’ here in London (it’s not due to open for general release here until January), followed by a live appearance and talk by Harvey Pekar, his wife Joyce, their ‘adopted’ daughter Danielle, and Paul Giamatti. It was an extraordinary experience to have this multiple view of reality: the man himself, the cartoons of him, the actor who portrays him, etc.etc.
    The film is brilliant, ground-breaking, totally absorbing. Can’t praise it enough. Makes all the block-buster special effects slick mega-bucks productions look like superficial candy floss. To my eyes anyway.