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
In `American Splendor,' Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, the comic book creator who became famous as a recurring guest on the David Letterman Show. A resident of Cleveland, Pekar was a socially backward man who found he had the talent to translate the pain, loneliness and frustration of his own unhappy life into universal truths, writing material that other artists would then illustrate in comic book form. He began a series entitled `American Splendor,' which was really an ongoing autobiographical narrative, drawing on people and events in his own life as his source of inspiration. The film, a pseudo-documentary of sorts, tells his life story by cutting back and forth between both staged reenactments of the events in the stories and interviews with Pekar himself commenting on those events.
`American Splendor' is an offbeat little gem that, in many ways, approximates the look and style of a comic book. As the story plays itself out, captions often appear on the screen, as well as illustrations from Pekar's actual work based on the scene we are witnessing. Robert Pulcini and Sheri Springer Berman, who wrote and directed the film together, create a surrealistic tone by having Pekar and his real friends and companions frequently appear on screen next to the actors who are portraying them (some of them dead ringers for the originals). This technique brings a homespun, homey sweetness to the film. `American Splendor' is a paean to all the social misfits in the world, people who, for whatever reason, can't seem to fit into society's prescribed mold but who often develop strong, meaningful bonds with similar individuals. The movie is also a tribute to the power of art, both for the artist who finds purpose and release through his work and for those to whom his work speaks on a personal and emotional level. The people who inhabit Pekar's strange world both in reality and within the borders of his comic strip boxes are seen in the film as warm, good-natured individuals, not socially astute, perhaps, but not losers either.
The emotional focal point for the film is Harvey's relationship with his wife, Joyce, beautifully played by Hope Davis. Despite the somewhat bizarre nature of their marriage, Harvey and Joyce forge a lasting commitment based on reciprocity and devotion. In fact, in the latter sections, the film achieves an emotional depth one doesn't expect it to early on, partly because Harvey is dealt a cruel blow of fate that he and his wife are forced to navigate through together. Yet, the film as a whole is filled with a sly, deadpan, mischievous sense of humor that demonstrates a keen grasp of the absurdities of life.
As Pekar, Paul Giametti turns in a flawless performance, capturing the nebbishness, cantankerousness and ultimate likeability of the man he is portraying.
In both style and content, `American Splendor' is aptly named.
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