2003, R, 101 min. Directed by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini. Starring Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Madylin Sweeten, Danielle Batone, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 12, 2003
I hear it all the time and I say it all the time: In the world of film, there’s nothing new under the sun. I was wrong, so sue me. American Splendor, if not entirely new in every single respect, at the very least feels remarkably fresh and exciting for a story that’s essentially about a fortysomething curmudgeon with a predilection for vintage jazz 78s, underground comic books, and the joyless squalor of post-boom Cleveland. That curmudgeon is underground cult icon Harvey Pekar, who has spent nearly three decades writing about his mundane existence as a Veteran’s Administration file clerk in his beloved hometown. Irascible, opinionated, and bafflingly endearing, Pekar, who has seen his fame rise in conjunction with his numerous comic-book writings (many of which were illustrated by that other underground cult figure, Robert Crumb), is the antihero’s antihero. But there’s more to it than that. American Splendor, the debut feature from directors Berman and Pulcini, is shot on traditional film stock, with even more traditional 35 mm cameras, and it employs living actors chewing around the edges of a "traditional" plot. Those characteristics pretty much exempt it from being a product of any of the major studios, who have of late become so gaga over the possibilities of hi-definition filmmaking and computer-generated effects that they’ve left plebian storytelling in the dirt somewhere back yonder in the south pasture. What’s so striking – and so affecting – about the film is the way Berman and Pulcini, who also wrote the smart, funny, altogether clever script (based on Pekar’s comics’ work, both solo and with co-writer Joyce Brabner), discover and employ new avenues of cinematic storytelling to further what by even its originator’s accounts is a less-than-exhilarating storyline. From the daily drudgery of Pekar’s Cleveland routine to his weekend hauntings of local garage sales in a usually futile quest for undiscovered 78rpm recordings of his beloved Twenties jazz greats, and from his marriage to fellow-traveler Brabner to, eventually, his unforeseen battle with testicular cancer, both comic book and film detail the unhip lives of the untermensch. Disheveled character actor Giamatti as the stooped and growly Pekar (he sounds like he’s got a bale of hay lodged in his throat) is terrific, but that’s just the beginning – the real Pekar, who narrates, pops up from time to time to interact with Giamatti-as-Giamatti, and with Giamatti-as-Pekar, and to mull the proceedings onscreen, like a third-tier Greek chorus in the cheapest seats around. "That guy don’t look nothin’ like me, but whatever," the real Pekar grouses, while Giamatti, who has the Pekarian mannerisms down pat, continues being Pekar. It would be confusing, I think, if it weren’t so thoroughly well-made – there’s a fluid sense of a sure directorial hand throughout. Pekar’s geeky, equally neurotic wife, Joyce, is played by About Schmidt’s Davis, but true to the nifty logic of American Splendor, the real-life Joyce Brabner is also on hand throughout. At the center of its uniquely beating heart, American Splendor (the movie and the comic book) is a heartfelt valentine to Everymen (and Women) everywhere, the comic-book nerds and vintage-collector never-rans, who finally, with the assistance of the wonderful Mr. Pekar, get their due by association. There’s a lot of American splendor out there, I suspect, but only one American Splendor. (See austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-09-05/screens_feature.html, for Pekar’s self-penned impressions of movie stardom.)