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USA 2003
Directed by
Shari Springer Berman / Robert Pulcini
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

American Splendor

Synopsis: Harvey Pekar is a file clerk in the Cleveland Veteran’s Hospital. Through his interest in collecting old jazz records he meets fellow Clevelander and soon-to-be famous underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb. Harvey decides he could write his own comic and when Crumb agrees to illustrate it, American Splendor is born and with it a whole new realm of experience for the belligerently non-conformist Pekar.

Terms like "extraordinary artist" and "bona fide American original" are being bandied about with respect to Harvey Pekar, the real-life star of American Splendor and author of the comic of the same name. That is merely sideshow hucksterism. Pekar is not particularly gifted or adept or even that unusual. All that really differentiates him from the majority of his fellows is an innate inability to play the game. Yet, where others of his ilk might have reached for a gun, a rope or a syringe, through a fortuitous concatenation of circumstances, Harvey found an outlet for his cess in writing comics, and thereby, and highly ironically, cult stardom, literary awards, regular appearances on The David Letterman Show, a play, and now this film, based on his gloomily splenetic observations on the mundane absurdity of his anonymous existence in the industrial drabness of Cleveland, known to its denizens as "Rust City". Not bad for a chronic grump with little respect for personal hygeine.

If you’ve seen Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb and his 2002 fictional extension of this, Ghost World (there’s a whiff of Pekar in Steve Buscemi’s character in that film), you’re not in for any surprises with American Splendor. But if on familiar ground subject-wise, this film has its own style.

Pekar himself, as we can see from his appearances in the film, probably would not sustain a full-length feature. Writer-directors and husband and wife team, Pulcini and Berman have skilfully crafted a multi-layered way of telling Pekar’s story that, using his autobiographical comics as source material, interweaves actors playing Pekar (Paul Giamatti) and the main characters in his life including his wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), and the decidedly offball Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), with appearances by the actual people, notably Pekar himself. Pekar comments on the film as a work-in progress as well as 2D animations (various illustrators have represented him) and historical footage of him (although, disappointingly, not Pekar’s final disgruntled appearance on Letterman).

Not only is American Splendor both cleverly-conceived and executed and of interest both in its content and as a way of telling "true" stories, it is often very funny, in a blackly humorous way. Working on many levels simultaneously, this is rewarding viewing in a commendably modest way and destined for a deservedly healthy run on the independent circuit.




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