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Lately, I find myself running hot and cold when it comes to films. With films I don't enjoy, I want very much for the film makers to get hit by a bus full of Nazis while on their way to their own children's funerals. For films I like, I want to see the film makers riding into town upon a white mule, feasting on the fatted lamb (which, as lamb enthusiasts will tell you, is the best lamb).
For American Splendor, I would see the film makers eating lamb. Splendor is the long-time-in-the-works biopic of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, whose book of the same name won critical acclaim in the seventies and eighties. The film proper opens with the breakup of Pekar's second marriage in 1975, but backtracks to cover his life from the sixties to the present day, covering his friendship (and eventual collaboration) with the legendary Robert Crumb and culminating in his battle with cancer. It also covers everything that happened along the way, including his marriage to Joyce Brabner and his falling out with David Letterman. It's a rich film, with tremendous depth.
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a thirty-something schlub from Cleveland, Ohio (America's schlubbiest city), working a dead end job as a file clerk in a Veteran's Hospital. After meeting Crumb, "a shy, retiring cat from Philadelphia", Pekar is inspired to write his own comics about his day to day life, covering the inconsequential (waiting in line at the supermarket, searching for lost keys) and the catastrophic (loneliness, depression, disappointment). Crumb agrees to illustrate the stories, and Splendor is born. Despite the success of the book and his marriage to Joyce (Hope Davis), Pekar is never content, and never quits his job at the hospital. Eventually, Harvey gets testicular cancer, and deals with the subsequent year of treatment by putting out a graphic novel co-written with his wife, titled Our Cancer Year. Along the way they pick up a foster daughter, battle with Harvey's pathological depression, watch as their lives is turned into a stage play, and deal with the fallout following a Letterman taping where Harvey asserts himself by insulting his host and his audience. This film has a lot of stuff in it, and it's all very funny and well performed.
American Splendor is as varied and unbound as its subject, with elements of adaptation, biopic, animation and documentary combining to create a unique film experience. Giamatti plays the hyper-real character of Harvey from the book with exacting misery and candor, while the real life Harvey also features in the film as himself. It's the sort of picture-in-picture effect that is very hard to do well (Adaptation, and to a lesser degree Seinfeld) and very easy to do badly (all reality television). There's also animated Harvey, at times unassuming, at times (especially when drawn by Crumb) monstrous.
Giamatti (Private Parts, Saving Private Ryan) shows incredible restraint as Pekar, capturing his body language perfectly without overdoing a part that could very easily be characterized to the point of mockery. Hope Davis (About Schmidt) turns in a great performance as Joyce, Pekar's long suffering wife. James Urbaniak (Henry's Fool) gets the bit part of a lifetime playing Robert Crumb. Judah Friedlander (Meet The Parents, Showtime) is pants-crappingly funny as Toby Radloff, Harvey's "borderline autistic" friend and co-worker. Radloff seems comically overblown until you see the two actors sitting in the studio, watching with morbid fascination the interplay between the real Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff. Again, this is great stuff, with the only weak points being the occasional slow pace, particularly during Harvey's battle with cancer. But then, there's also a scene where Harvey appears on a blank page, talking to the audience, while someone draws behind him. Sit through the boring bits.
American Splendor screened at Cannes and
won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2003. Like the
book, it deserves a wider audience that it most likely
will not get, much to the gratitude of the fans who
may feel it's too unique to be enjoyed en masse. Go