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After hearing a handful of recommendations, I jumped at the first opportunity to see AMERICAN SPLENDOR this past weekend. I'd heard quite a bit about it, and being one who has a special place in his heart for comic adaptations, I was really looking forward to it. Of course, this isn't just any old comic adaptation. It's not a superhero piece like a HULK or X-MEN, nor is it even a regular old linear story like GHOST WORLD. AMERICAN SPLENDOR is an autobiographical piece, based primarily on actual comics by the film's subject, Harvey Pekar. Let me explain for you: Pekar writes a comic called American Splendor, which chronicles the happenings of the everyday man: himself. The film takes a look at the life of Pekar, but focuses on specific "story arcs" from the comic itself. In addition to these stories, in which Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti, there are bits where the real Harvey Pekar, who is providing the film's narration, is shown in a studio interacting with other members of the cast (both actors playing the people in his life and the people in his life themselves.)
Harvey Pekar, for those who aren't familiar with him, is a comic book author who started on the heels of the underground comic movement of the 1970's. With nary an ounce of artistic talent, Harvey begins drawing stick figures acting out some of the annoynaces that he encounters. After good friend R. Crumb offers to illustrate his work, Harvey's comic book American Splendor becomes a cult sensation, although it doesn't exactly shoot him to fame and fortune. In fact, Harvey remains devoted to his job as a hospital file clerk for 37 years.
What all this adds up to is a unique movie experience where you ever-so-slowly you start realizing just how real these things are. It's been said that there are no new stories to tell, only new ways to tell existing stories. I'll buy that for a dollar. AMERICAN SPLENDOR's way of telling its story is refreshing and originally. And most importantly, it doesn't pretend it's not a movie. For example, there's a scene where the real Harvey Pekar is narrating a scene. He mentions that the actor playing him looks nothing like him, but that that's okay because he was never drawn the same way in the comics. Another clever way they worked in this angle is during scenes where Pekar appears on Late Night with David Letterman, the place from where most Americans are familiar with Pekar. In one scene, Harvey, Played by Giamatti, and his wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), are in the green room of the Letterman show. Joyce watches as Harvey walks out on stage. But it's not an actor playing Harvey or Dave, it's actual archive footage of Pekar on the show. After Harvey leaves the stage, Giamatti walks back into the dressing room, seamlessly tying the scene together.
he casting is absolutely perfect. I've always been an advocate of Giamatti ever since his turn as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's PRIVATE PARTS. He's one of the finest character actors in existence, and has been strongly underused in high-profile roles. He nails Harvey here in pretty much every conceivable way. Even if you had no idea of who Pekar is, the performance is still impressive. But the real kicker here is the fact that you do get to see who Pekar is, because of the way the film is constructed. Seeing Giamatti play the role right alongside the real thing, it's sometimes hard to tell the two apart. Giamatti nails everything, from the way he furrows his brow, to the inflection of certain words, down to the preoccupied state that Harvey is constantly in.
We also meet the real Toby Radloff, as well as the Toby played by Judah Friedlander. The order in which we meet them, however, is crucial. When you first encounter Friedlander's portrayal of Toby, you're thinking there's no way this is not an exaggeration. And sure enough, through archived footage of an MTV Spring Break promotion (which I had all but blocked out of my mind until seeing the film) as well as some scenes with the real Toby in studio, we realize this guy is for real. The self-described nerd Toby is one of the delights of the movie. Oh yeah, and I'm convinced that the Comic book Guy from The Simpsons was created with more than a coincidental resemblance to Radloff.
Hope Davis, another performer I've always had nothing but praise for, plays Harvey's wife Joyce Brabner. Davis is amazing in that she can go from she can go from strong and sexy to meek and mousy with no effort at all. She's played her share of neurotic characters, but none can measure up to the comic fan who fills a huge void in Harvey's life. Joyce provides a balance to Harvey's neurosis, even though she's not exactly the most level person herself. We realize quickly that these two very imperfect people are so perfect for one another. Again, we can't truly appreciate how dead-on that Davis is at nailing the role, or how well she and Giamatti portray the relationship between the real Harvey and Joyce, until we actually see the real things interacting in the present tense.
When all these elements are brought together, the result is an entertaining story. And as me and a dead guy from Seattle have said before, that's all we ask for. There's no way you can watch AMERICAN SPLENDOR and not get sucked in to these peoples' lives. In a way, it's because you can't believe that people like this are real. Of course, you've also gotta be watching it thinking "I'm glad I'm not like these people", although you'd probably love to know them. And while the idea of some not-so-interesting guy's not-so-interesting life doesn't seem all that, well, interesting, you'd be suprised as to how much it gets you sucked in.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR (which by all accounts should have starred Mena Suvari, after AMERICAN PIE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and AMERICAN VIRGIN) is one of those little movies that doesn't win Oscars or create box office stars, but it's a fine example of what a movie should be all about. With comic book movies approaching ridiculous proportions, it's good to see one that's so down-to-earth being treated as such. Really, in all seriousness, I can't recommend a film more. No, really, I mean it.
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