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Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s “American Splendor” freely combines fact and fiction with its eclectic mix of feature film, animation, and documentary. With Paul Giamatti playing the ordinary and legendary comic book writer Harvey Pekar, the film gives us a rich, compelling human comedy full of wit, humor, and life.
Pekar’s comic book series was mostly based on his own life, and he presented himself as the hero. It was something which had never been done before around the time when he pitched his comic book idea to his close friend Robert Crumb, who willingly helped as his illustrator. Though Pekar initially published his comic book series for himself, it eventually gained considerable popularity and acclaim. Pekar even found himself appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” several times, even though he was still stuck with his mundane daily life in Cleveland, Ohio.
The movie dryly observes small ups and downs in Pekar’s life. We see how Pekar’s second marriage ends with lots of anger and bitterness; we see how his accidental friendship with Crumb (James Urbaniak) leads to the creation of his comic book series; we see how the modest initial success of his comic book series leads to his encounter with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who becomes his third wife shortly after their first date (“I think we should skip the whole courtship thing and just get married,” she says at one point). And we also see how he and Joyce go through his serious medical situation and come to have a surrogate daughter in the meantime.
While he is usually messy and miserable, Pekar has a considerable self-awareness, which allows him to capture the humor and peculiarity behind the plain, monotonous daily life surrounding him and others around him. In his view, even a brief conversation between two laborers is funny enough to be a subject for his comic book series, and so are some of his colleagues at a local Veteran’s Administration hospital, where he has worked as a file clerk for many years without much promise. For instance, his best friend/colleague Tony Radloff (Judah Friedlander) is your typical nerd who is also possibly borderline autistic, and one of the most amusing scenes comes from how quickly Tony and Joyce become friendly with each other after watching “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Pekar’s chaotic private life is also the constant source of inspiration, and Berman and Pulcini frequently accentuate this aspect via animation. In the case of a small scene at a supermarket, the insertion of animation hilariously conveys to us Pekar’s accumulating frustration with his life as well as a certain old lady in front of him. And when Joyce is waiting for her first direct encounter with Pekar, the movie has a little naughty fun with several differently illustrated versions of Pekar. Their eventual encounter is punctuated by one of the funniest lines in the film.
In addition, Berman and Pulcini often segue into documentary—placing the real Pekar in front of the camera. While we are constantly aware of the difference between real Pekar and how he is depicted in the movie and his comic book series, the movie seamlessly plaits these different elements together for a multi-dimensional narrative, one that perfectly fits to the style and personality of Pekar’s comic book series.
Like they in his comic book series, fact and fiction wryly dance around each other in the film, a fascinating aspect that’s exemplified when Pekar’s makes his first guest appearance on Letterman’s show. During this scene, the movie simply inserts the archival footage showing real Pekar and Letterman, but this archival footage is somehow organically connected with Giamatti’s performance. We do not sense much disparity between the real Pekar and Giamatti.
Always very good at playing flawed, ordinary guys, Giamatti effortlessly embodies Pekar’s complex human qualities, balancing between humor and poignancy. Throughout the film, we come to empathize more with his character’s thoughts and feelings—especially during a simple but sublime scene where his character muses a bit on life after unexpectedly falling into an unconscious state.
Hope Davis, who was also slowly ascending in her acting career around that time, is equally fabulous as a woman who is as colorful and opinionated as Harvey. Davis skillfully complements Giamatti during their scenes, and her solid performance is smoothly merged with real Joyce just like Giamatti’s is with real Pekar. The real Joyce does not pull any punches when she talks about her husband, and we can clearly see that they are soulmates to each other despite their apparent personality differences.
Several other main performers in the film are also effective in their respective roles. James Urbaniak is suitably deadpan as Crumb, Earl Billings firmly sticks to his gruff attitude as another notable colleague of Pekar, and Judah Friedlander of “30 Rock” is quite impressive in his utterly nerdy appearance.
Overall, “American Splendor” is an under-appreciated gem which deserves more attention. Its memorable slices of life amused and touched me a lot, especially as I came to reflect a bit on my life. Yes, I often feel frustrated with how my life seems to be going nowhere, but I am still trying to keep going on, through my brutal honesty and certitude mixed with a quirky sense of humor. And I cherish those sporadic happy moments from my longtime pursuit of good books and movies. As looking back at numerous absurd moments in my life includes two morbidly comical suicidal attempts, I certainly agree to what Pekar says in the middle of the film: “Life seemed so sweet and so sad, and so hard to let go of in the end. But hey, man, every day is a brand new deal, right? Just keep on working and something’s bound to turn up.”
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