American Splendor (2003)

“American Splendor” is the biographical film of cult underground critically acclaimed writer Harvey Pekar, a man whose become synonymous with underground comics. What “American Splendor” does is rare, rather than adhering the normal formulas of the biopic with dramatic tones, the obligatory villains and hardships, it’s approached rather with a realistic combination of comedy, drama, animation, and documentary style with interviews along with Pekar’s usual loving sense of self-loathing. “American Splendor” is a film rich with human overtones, and human characters that aren’t appealing to the eye, but are completely realistic.

Harvey Pekar, for people who don’t know, was an average man who wrote the everyday activities of his mundane dreadful life and hired artists to adapt his writing to comic books that became underground hits garnering him legions of fans who read every issue with enthusiasm, now I’ve never read a comic from his series, but “American Splendor” does a great thing and takes people who wouldn’t know Pekar and brings them into his zone of creativity. “American Splendor” does something else that bio pics about artists hardly ever do, we’re engrossed in the creative process behind Pekar’s writing, and by that we feel like get to know him on a personal level. While the creative process of his work is spotlighted here, we’re also given a big glimpse into his life that plays out almost like a Woody Allen picture that took place.

We watch Pekar shopping and his animated counterpart begins rattling him about the woman in front taking a long time, we see him interacting with the people around his job including the hilarious Toby Radloff, the odd and eccentric friend who is very protective of his own territory but becomes friends with Harvey. Judah Friedlander does a remarkable spot on impression of the real Toby Radloff that we witness in proof during one of the many intermissions in which the actors step out from the cameras and sit in the back laughing and watching while Harvey and his friend Toby discuss jellybeans. While the intermissions with the real life Harvey and Toby, and the many interviews may have been distracting in other films, it’s charming here and very fascinating to watch. Harvey is merciless in his views and with his interviewer while he gives honest views about his life, and his affinity for orange soda which just sucked me in.

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini give excellent direction here composing a rather engrossing tale about a real life Joe who never really got anything but notoriety in the end. The film is very funny and bittersweet in the sense that Pekar is such a miserable person for no reason we can conjure up, and the writers and directors don’t really attempt to conjure up reasons for his distaste for life, yet they celebrate it and keep the mystery for the fans and audience who just grows fond of Pekar as the story presses on. While “American Splendor” reminded me of “Annie Hall” in many respects being dialogue, situations, and sheer character oddities, I wasn’t too happy with the final half of the movie with Harvey’s inevitable Cancer. The film takes an unneeded turn for a man who already has had his knocks in life, but it does tell the story of his inevitable graphic novel chronicling the cancer process.

The film which is completely focused on a bitter man along with interviews from a bitter man takes a cop-out ending with a sweet ending that I wasn’t satisfied with other than a more witty ending that I would have preferred. While the effect is filled with good intentions it never fit in with the film well, and there’s a feeling of incompletion to the story. Actor Paul Giamatti who was horribly snubbed in the Oscars for his role, gives one hell of a performance here, not playing Pekar, but embodying the man and his mannerisms. Giamatti is very good here and makes the movie what it is with his pure sense of agony almost as if he actually knows his life is miserable and doesn’t see any reason to move further with it, he looks like a man trapped in his own mundane activities as a hospital clerk and he never denies it.

Hope Davis plays Joyce Brabner, a fan of Harvey’s who forms a romance with him that’s very uneasy. They get married right away despite being opposite but they also tend to even each other out with their own eccentricities. Davis is great in the film as well, and embodies Pekar’s real wife. The two bicker and banter with one another like a couple out of a Woody Allen film and they have great chemistry. We get to witness some real accounts of Pekar’s life including his numerous appearances on the Letterman show, his uncomfortable rise to notoriety that brings no money, and his bout with cancer which he chronicled in a graphic novel. The film gives a charming, funny, and many times engrossing account of Pekar which will surely please fans and garner some new ones and I liked it a lot. I didn’t like the last half which takes an unwelcome dramatic turn, but nonetheless, this is one hell of a funny film with a true to life spirit, flawed characters we can all love, great direction, and utterly top-notch acting from Davis and Giamatti that you can’t miss.