American Splendor

2003, Movie, R, 101 mins


Comic book stories aren't all superhero fantasies, and comic-book movies don't have to be special effects-heavy junk for perpetual adolescents, as this bittersweet adaptation of grunge-poet Harvey Pekar's American Splendor proves. Pekar's autobiographical chronicle of day-to-day banality is a rich, if dingy, tapestry of ordinary life in all its infinite, homely peculiarity, which filmmakers Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring to uniquely eccentric life. Their stroke of genius was to allow real life, cartoon images and straightforward realistic filmmaking to bleed together from scene to scene and shot to shot. The real Pekar comments on the film's multiple "Pekars" — not just actor Paul Giamatti's version, but also the disparate images created by various American Splendor illustrators — while the movie's Pekar shuffles dyspeptically through a world that regularly dissolves into artist's renderings of itself. It's a risky strategy that pays off brilliantly, because if Pekar's uniquely twisted take on the world isn't vividly real, he's just a rumpled, crank wallowing in his own misanthropic juices. Pekar's peculiar path to cult celebrity begins in his native Cleveland in the 1970s. His upwardly mobile wife has just dumped him, he's suffocating in a dead-end job filing medical records at a local hospital, his shabby apartment is a coffin with furniture and his own voice has betrayed him, constricting into a strangled squeak he's sure presages throat cancer. Pekar channels his frustrated creative energies — energies so unexamined he barely knows they're there — into collecting old jazz 78s, which leads him to friendship with fellow jazz fan and soon-to-be underground comic-book legend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak). Crumb introduces Pekar to the fledgling alternative comic scene, and inspires him to turn his bitterly articulated rants about mundane experiences — waiting on supermarket lines behind old Jewish ladies, eating in rundown diners, confronting his own dumpy reflection in the mirror ("Another reliable disappointment") — into stories. With Crumb's support, Pekar's slices of workaday life become American Splendor, which confers cult immortality on the writer and his friends, nerdy Toby (Judah Friedlander), paranoid Mr. Boats (Earl Billings) and fan Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who becomes Pekar's wife and lifeline when he really does get cancer. From Pekar's brief and unlikely success on The David Letterman Show to the semblance of nuclear family happiness he eventually achieves, his story is, ultimately, truly splendid in its union of the singular and the prosaic. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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