Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is an obsessive compulsive who works as a file clerk at his local Cleveland hospital. At home, Harvey spends time reading, listening to jazz and writing about everything that interests him. At a garage sale of old records, he meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), a greeting card artist and music enthusiast who is finding success from his underground comic books. Harvey begins to write his own brand of comic, using his profoundly problematic every day life for material, which Crumb begins to illustrate. The first American Splendor comic is published in 1976. When he receives a fan letter from Delaware book store owner Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), they correspond briefly, decide to meet, and quickly marry. Happy ending, but itís kinda true.
Review by Louise Keller:
Misery loves company is his philosophy, this lumpy, frumpy obsessively compulsive Harvey Pekar, who lives life with a perpetual scowl and surrounds himself with chaos and disarray. Just as Terry Zwigoff created his own unique world in Ghostworld, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have created the unique world of Harvey Pekar in this unique and compelling profile. American Splendor is the true story of the man most unlikely to succeed, who uses his everyday life and experiences as fuel for the narrative of his comic books. Instead of creating a comic book superhero, he has represented himself, hairy body, domestic chaos and all. And the result is fascinating. Springer Berman and Pulcini have successfully incorporated the real Harvey Pekar into the screenplay, so that the fiction representing the reality is married with the fictionalised reality.†
Confused? Donít worry, while there are abundant complexities, the film is confusing in a stimulating way, and as we explore the life of this unusual man who uses what he has to make a success of his life, we easily coast through the intricacies. Besides, the laid back jazz score offers an enticing backdrop on this unexpected ride of insanity. We first meet Pekar as a kid doing the rounds for Halloween with a group of kids dressed up as superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Robin. When one woman asks Pekar which superhero he represents, he snarls ĎIím no superhero; Iím just a kid from the neighbourhood.í And thatís what he remains Ė a most ordinary and often obnoxious man who uses his observations and experiences to form reflections about human nature. His comic book persona is certainly no superhero, but is a mirror to himself and represents his innermost feelings and frustrations.†
Splendid production design showcases comic book frames into which the Pekarís character walks, and itís almost a case of smoke and mirrors when the screen persona becomes the man himself, in scenes such as the David Letterman show appearances. We meet Paul Giamatti in the dressing room, but when we see the interaction with Letterman, itís the real Pekar on screen. Giamatti makes the most of this challenging role, offering a bizarre, obnoxious, yet often appealing character. Hope Davisí Joyce is a breath of fresh air, as she makes us understand how these two extraordinary characters are truly a match for each other. All the characters are very real Ė from James Urbaniakís Robert Crumb to Judah Friedlanderís Ďborderline autisticí Toby, who steals many a scene. American Splendor is an unusual film Ė about a very unusual man. Are you ready for it?
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As ironic as its title, American Splendor is certainly one of the most complete, satisfying and entertaining hybrid of documentary and dramatisation, as well as of live action and 2D animation/comic stills. And also of humour and pathos. And itís all true. Which should come as no surprise, even to those who have never heard of Harvey Pekar, because truth is not only stranger than fiction, itís also often more recognisable. Harvey Pekar, who is funny pekarliar yet still an everyman, has charted his gloomy and troublesome life through comics he wrote (illustrated by Robert Crumb), without polishing it or cleaning it up; and heís very messy. Not only messy as in messy apartment, but messy as in messy mind. Two bad marriages behind him (we only get a glimpse of the last moments of the second), Harvey is a sad basket case and this is the glue that holds our interest.†
The humour is the kind that enables us to accept that a situation is at once serious and funny. Serious and real and painful Ė but funny because what we recognise is the all too real frailty of our own humanity. Letís not get too heavy, though, American Splendor doesnít. Yet it does confront a manís many moments of despair. The film is uniquely made; in a way, itís as if the camera were capturing the reflection of a man in a mirror, and then panning round to show us the real man standing there. So it is that Paul Giamatti and the real Harvey Pekar share screen time, are interchangeable, and we hear both their voices at different times. We see behind the artifice of the documentarian yet Ė by sheer honesty and verve Ė the filmmakers never lose us or distance us from the story of this man. He tells us things, they show us things, and we intuitively discover things, while listening to a great soundtrack. Itís great stuff.
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AMERICAN SPLENDOR (M)
CAST: Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Shari Springer Berman, Earl Billings, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Robert Pulcini, Toby Radloff, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Donal Logue, Molly Shannon, James McCaffrey, Madylin Sweeten, Danielle Batone
PRODUCER: Ted Hope
DIRECTOR: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
SCRIPT: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini (Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner - comic books)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Terry Stacey
EDITOR: Robert Pulcini
MUSIC: Mark Suozzo (title song Eytan Mirsky)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: ThťrŤse DePrez
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Arclight/Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 11, 2003