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Sunday, May 6, 2007

AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003) - Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

Most of the comic-book movies released these days deal with rubber or spandex clad super heroes who battle with evil villains for truth, justice, the American way and whatever other superlative that is threatened in fantastical vision of the world. However, since the 1970's, Harvey Pekar has been the unlikely 'hero' of an underground comic that deals with the monotony and struggles of every day life. But Pekar isn't just a fictional character. He's a real man with real issues and the characters he is surrounded by are the cartoon manifestations of Pekar's friends and family. In 2003, Pekar's comic books were turned into a film by documentarians, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in American Splendor.

The first thing to mention about American Splendor is the way in which Berman and Pulcini approached the subject matter. Doing a straight up documentary about Pekar and his life would seem rather flat and formulaic. Filming the comics as a biopic would run against Pekar's sesibilities and the way he does his comics. He himself expresses concerns in the film about selling out. So what the filmmakers have done is to combine the methods into a film that mixes dramatized sections of Pekar's life with stylized interviews of Pekar, his wife Joyce and Pekar's friends. This is a very interesting approach to the film as it breaks the fourth wall between the film and the audience. Pekar himself narrates throughout the film while Paul Giamatti plays the dramatized version of the comic writer.

Harvey Pekar is a file clerk in Cleveland. Other than his job, there's not much to Pekar's life other than reading and collecting jazz records, which is something of an obsession for him. He meets illustrator Robert Crumb (author and illustrator of the infamous Fritz the Cat comics and spearhead of the underground comic scene of the 1960's) who soon after becomes a celebrity due to the successes of his own comic. This inspires Pekar to start writing his own comics, dealing with his own life in a truthful and cantankerous manner. But Pekar doesn't glamorize himself in any way what so ever, and soon his comics (illustrated by different artists in different ways) become a hit, leading to fame for Pekar and eventually a recurring spot on the David Letterman show. Pekar meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), an eccentric fan of American Splendor and the two get married and begin their hum-drum life together.

American Splendor is a genuinely humorous look at an average guy who finds an outlet for the seemingly hopelessness of his life and the observations he makes, in a medium usually reserved for the likes of Batman and the X-Men. Giamatti is yet again brilliant as Pekar, capturing the demeanor and gruffness of Pekar and presenting us with an extremely grumpy, yet totally endearing character. Hope Davis is equally brilliant as Pekar's oddball third wife. The style of the film is pretty refreshing from what is usually expected from a biopic, and while you're taken out of the drama when the film cuts to the real Pekar and his friends, this technique (coupled with the narration by Pekar) doesn't take away from the film, but rather contributes to the overall effect.
While I missed this film on initial release, I'm glad to have caught it now. Especially seeing as the big movie of the moment is Spider-Man 3, another comic book movie, but of a completely different style. Compelling, and funny, American Splendor is a great watch, and a great take on a type of movie that has been done to death in recent times.


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