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American Splendor

Crawling across the country, American Splendor (HBO) finally opened in my neck of the woods this week. I’ve been anticipating this film with much the same fervor that your average X-Men junkie reserves for Hollywoodizations of Claremont’s World, so I was more than eager to see it.
Being a comic book fan and a moviegoer is often a matter of regularly revising expectations: you go into a movie adaptation of your favorite graphic work with high hopes and the only way you can maintain ‘em is to continually adjust the bar as you watch. Yet once Sheri Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini’s flick started unreeling, I gratefully settled into the moviegoing experience without feeling like I had to make any concessions. The writer/directors capture Pekar’s comics better than I know I expected.
Berman & Pulcini don’t take the easy route either. Mixing images from Pekar’s slice-o’-life “off the streets of Cleveland” comics with acted dramatizations of the comics plus real-life interviews with Pekar, spouse Joyce Brabner and self-proclaimed nerd/Splendor regular Toby Radloff, the movie strives for the same collation of tiny observations Pekar uses in his comic series and by-and-large achieves it. The film is chronologically structured to follow Pekar’s life from his early years as a V.A. clerk and part-time record dealer through his bout of quasi-celebrity as the author of autobiographical comics and early relationship with Brabner (“Man, she’s got good-lookin’ handwriting,” Pekar gushes as he reads her introductory letter). It does not, happily, ignore the supporting cast of real-life working stiffs who also inhabit Pekar’s comic books.

As a writer and autobiographer, Pekar works with a variety of artists, each of whom renders both Harvey and his friends differently. When spouse-to-be Joyce – wonderfully played by Hope Davis (loved her delivery tossing off snap DSM diagnoses of Pekar and his compatriots) – is asked by Pekar to meet him for the first time, she’s initially reluctant. She’s seen, she states, so many different cartoon images of him, how does she know what he really looks like? (Is he really, for instance, as hairy as collaborator/buddy R. Crumb makes him out to be?) In the movie, we get several on-screen versions of Harvey, too: Paul Giamatti acting the role (“He doesn’t look nothing like me – whatever,” the genuine Pekar notes in his narration) and Pekar himself being interviewed by the filmmakers and in clips from Late Night with David Letterman. At one point, the actors playing Harv and Joyce watch a California theatre production of American Splendor, as a scene we’ve already seen dramatized on film is unconvincingly and comically replayed on-stage. That’s a whole lotta Harvey.
You’d think all this meta-storytelling would work against the basic purity of Pekar’s work – which, after all, is devoted to autobiography and naturalistic snapshots of mundane life (without, as Pekar would put it, the “getting crushed to Earth” component of American Naturalistic novels) – but it doesn’t. A big key to the film’s success is its smart reliance on Pekar’s keen ear for dialog (not many comic book movies could so fully pull straight from the word balloons of their source material). But an equally important piece is Giamatti’s performance, which captures every aspect of the comic book Pekar – the V.A. hospital grind, the curmudgeonly free-lance writer, the obsessive collector and whole-scale neurotic – believably and appealingly. When the movie reaches its most serious act, our hero’s battle with cancer as originally dramatized by Brabner & Pekar in the Our Cancer Year graphic novel, Giamatti nails Pekar’s fear and frustration beautifully, even when the directors briefly bobble one of the moments (Pekar’s notorious final guest appearance on Letterman). It’s a damn fine piece of acting.
There was a time when I first started reading Pekar’s comics that I thought the title he gave his series was meant to be taken ironically. But the longer he’s been writing and the more developed his vision of American life has grown, the less sarcastic his title appears. It would’ve been easy to turn this movie into either a sneering or a sentimentalized vision of Pekar’s life and work. American Splendor, the movie, does neither. For once, this viewer’s fannish expectations have been fully satisfied. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    This is easily one of the best films of the year. So enamored of it was I that I already proclaimed it as the best the year has to offer – and there’s still a few months left (and other most-likely worthy contenders in Lost In Translation and The Station Agent.) You can read my review from a month or so back here: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/09/01/021604.php

    I’m not a reader of Pekar’s work, but seeing this really makes me want to track down all those issues of American Splendor. I’m sure I’m not alone . . .