AMERICAN SPLENDOR (director/writer: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; screenwriter: from Joyce Brabner’s comic book series Our Cancer Year; cinematographer: Terry Stacey; editor: Robert Pulcini; music: Mark Suozzo; cast: Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Harvey Pekar (Himself), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), Joyce Babner (Herself), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Toby Radloff (Himself), Earl Billings (Mr. Boats), James McCaffrey (Fred), Donal Logue (Stage Actor Harvey), Danielle Batone (Real Danielle), Danielle Batone (Madylin Sweeten); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Ted Hope; Fine Line Features; 2003)
“I found both Harvey Pekar and the film to be the genuine article.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A diverting autobiography about an American original, Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland native, V.A. hospital file clerk, and grouchy commentator on the ordinary things of life. Husband and wife documentary filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring Pekar’s compelling true story as a comic book writer to screen. Pekar writes the underground comic book American Splendor and features himself in the comic book as the working-class Everyman, as he shows how he operates in his daily life while using real-life characters and not superheroes–as in most comics. In the movie he appears as himself and also acts as narrator. But in the fictionalized part, Harvey Pekar is superbly played by Paul Giamatti (son of the former president of Yale and baseball commissioner) and his nutty disease-obsessed wife Joyce Brabner is played passionately by Hope Davis. The real Joyce also is in the low-budget indie film.
“American Splendor” deftly mixes reality with fiction, comedy with tragedy, and manages to make this ordinary guy into an antihero icon just because he had the nerve to follow his inner path and never compromise himself despite his unhappiness. The story overlaps with part of the film a documentary and the other parts are either fictionalized or follow the ongoing adventures Harvey experiences writing his comic book–in some parts using animation. James Urbaniak plays a young Robert Crumb, at a time when he was a greeting card artist and befriended Harvey at a garage jazz record sale. It wasn’t until later that Crumb became the noted underground comic book writer and illustrator. In 1976 he gave Harvey his big break when he agreed to illustrate his comics, and so helped give birth to the American Splendor series. Harvey is limited because he only writes and can’t draw, and has since used many illustrators.
The film closes with Harvey’s real retirement party as a file clerk after 30 years of service. By this time Harvey has learned how to live better with his depressions, neuroses, his obsessive-compulsive complex, and has managed to get recognized for his unique comic book for adults. He married his third wife Joyce Brabner, tasted celebrity by witnessing his comic book made into a stage play and then appearing in the 1980s on “Late Night with David Letterman” show, overcame cancer by going through a year of chemo-therapy, and adopted the sweet young girl of an illustrator friend, named Danielle, who felt more comfortable living with Joyce and Harvey than with her divorced parents.
The film is filled with oddball workplace characters such as the “world-class nerd” Toby Radloff, with both the real Toby and Judah Friedlander playing him with equal skill. Toby shares Harvey’s angst at how unfair the world is to nerds without a formal education. There’s also the rigidly opinionated African-American V. A. worker Mr. Boats, who is warm to Harvey but has his nose up in the air with most of his other colleagues and is rich fodder for the comic book.
Harvey was a compulsive collector of vintage records and comic books, a jazz fan, a slob, an avid reader, and a loner who walked around as if he were in a permanent slump. He supposedly got a big break appearing on the Letterman show, where the host found Harvey an easy target to take comical potshots at. Harvey was made a regular guest on the show after he proved to be an audience favorite, and could almost hold his own with the insulting comedian. But when after a year he still could support his family only through his day job, he took his built-up anger and resentment out on Letterman. The film shows real film clips from his Letterman appearances, but on his last show it does a recreation. Harvey refused to kowtow to Letterman’s silly antics and wanted this time to talk serious politics, but this annoyed the audience and the host. He was unceremoniously fired in the middle of the show, as it went to a commercial break. That was the film’s most telling moment, but sprinkled throughout was a fair amount of comedy intermeshed with the poignancy of Harvey dealing with his unfulfilled life and then his cancer.
I have never read his comic books and have no plans to do so, but I found both Harvey Pekar and the film to be the genuine article. American Splendor is an endearing film about a flesh-and-blood person who is both uniquely fictionalized and presented as he is in real life, with nothing manufactured to make him more marketable. It had a strange effect because of its originality, with the real Harvey oddly onscreen at times with the fictionalized one. It also worked so well because of the gifted cast and the likable nature of the gloomy Harvey Pekar character, real or the fictionalized alter ego one. It felt good rooting for this schlemiel to succeed, as it was so easy to identify with him.
“American Splendor” was the winner of the 2003 Jury Prize at Sundance and the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes.
REVIEWED ON 9/13/2003 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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