Harvey Pekar is file clerk at the local VA hospital. His interactions with his co-workers offer some relief from the monotony, and their discussions encompass everything from music to the decline of American culture to new flavors of jellybeans and life itself. At home, Harvey fills his days with reading, writing and listening to jazz. His apartment is filled with thousands of books and LPs, and he regularly scours Cleveland's thrift stores and garage sales for more, savoring the rare joy of a 25-cent find. It is at one of these junk sales that Harvey meets Robert Crumb, a greeting card artist and music enthusiast. When, years later, Crumb finds international success for his underground comics, the idea that comic books can be a valid art form for adults inspires Harvey to write his own brand of comic book. An admirer of naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser, Harvey makes his American Splendor a truthful, unsentimental record of his working-class life, a warts-and-all self portrait... Written by
Sujit R. Varma
All of the "white room" documentary scenes were filmed in one day. See more »
In the establishing Manhattan skyline shot before one of the David Letterman sequences, what was then (the 1980s) the Pan Am building is shown with its current "Met Life" signs (which didn't replace the "Pan Am" signs until 1992) shining from the top. See more »
You turned yourself into a comic hero?
Sorta, yeah. But no idealized shit. No phony bullshit. The real thing, y'know? Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.
See more »
"American Splendor" tells the story of a semi-curmudgeonly middle-aged man (Paul Giamatti) who has turned his blase life into fodder for a successful comic book. That subject matter is not excessively interesting, but the what of the film isn't as important or enjoyable as the how. This is a classic cinematic example of style over substance, as there may not have been a more creative film released in 2003.
The film is based upon the comic book "American Splendor," which apparently gained a cult following in the '70s and '80s. The comic book and the movie trace the life of Harvey Pekar, who is also the author of the comics. He is a curmudgeonly thirty-something who lives a mundane existence, working as an file clerk at a hospital while buying and selling jazz LPs on the side.
This is the rare film in which the technical aspects drive the film more than the story does. Most movies aim to pull you along with the suspense of what's going to happen next in the plot. On top of the extremely apt jazz music that drenches the movie, "American Splendor" keeps your attention because you wonder what creative editing is going to happen next. Two aspects of the editing uniquely stand out, the breaking down of the imaginary third wall and the mixture of animation and live-action.
First, the filmmakers break down the cinematic third wall by mixing actual archival footage and faux behind-the-scenes documentary-style clips with the narrative. In layman's terms, scenes featuring the actors are interspersed with scenes of the actual people the actors are portraying. For example, immediately following a sequence with Paul Giamatti as Pekar, the film cuts to the set where the scene was shot. There, the real Pekar rambles on about the just-filmed scene, while everyone else goes about their movie business. Other quirks include the use of real excerpts from "Late Night with David Letterman" and then later creating fictional episodes as well.
The other creative technique that pops up throughout the film is the interaction of live action and animation. Not in the usual cinematic manner like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", but in more of a comic book style. The very two-dimensional cartoons appear in parts such as the classic devil-and-angel-on-the-shoulder scene when Pekar faces a decision. All of this wildly singular design work merges to drive the movie forward. Usually the "What will happen next?" factor in the plot pushes the film, but in "American Splendor," not knowing what will happen next from an editing standpoint is the primary reason to keep watching.
In fact, it's about the only reason to keep watching. While the film is splendidly made, the characters still must draw interest for it to succeed, and on that front, "American Splendor" falls flat. Pekar and company are quirky, which is not necessarily bad, but in a weird and dark manner, not in a good humourous way. None of their qualities are noble or redeeming, a la "Return of the King". They're not even endearing, along the lines of an unusual film like "Punch-Drunk Love". This lack of high qualities makes the characters difficult to invest in emotionally. There aren't even any stock characters, the kind whose story arc you can pinpoint from the minute they appear on the screen. Some will no doubt love this uniqueness, but while I praise the filmmakers for crafting original characters, the lack of any rooting interest in or familiarity with the characters prevented me from connecting personally at all.
I should point out that the absence of involving characters has nothing to do with the acting itself. Giamatti ("Planet of the Apes", "Big Fat Liar"), the most recognizable face, is stellar as the grumpy Pekar, embodying him so perfectly that Pekar himself comes across as just a poor imitation. The rest of the cast fills in well, but also is limited by the written characters, which consistently come across as two-dimensional caricatures, rather than the actual people they are representing. For example, Hope Davis plays Pekar's love interest, and while she nails the look and mannerisms, her character often seems to be making decisions for no apparent reason. That's an attribute that is embedded in the entire film, but at little fault of the cast.
The overall vibe reminds me of "The Good Girl". The film is generally well done, with decent to quite good acting. But there is no rooting interest, and the story is void of noble qualities. American Splendor varies from all other films on the creative side though, and that freshness and uniqueness causes me to highly recommend this film to people who are interested in and intrigued by filmmaking and the cinematic process.
Bottom Line: Good for film students, but if you're a typical movie-goer, looking for an entertaining evening, I'd point you elsewhere. 6/10, almost entirely for technical merit.
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