March 22, 2002
Harvey Pekar’s comic book, American Splendor pioneered a new genre: the autobiographical comic book. At first glance, the everyday events of a file clerk from Cleveland seem hardly the material for an interesting film. Fortunately, filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman are able to take what was funny, heart-breaking and fascinating about Pekar’s life and successfully adapt from the panels on the page to the big screen. Like Ghost World (2000), American Splendor (2003) champions outsiders who don’t fit in with mainstream society.
The film is part biopic and part documentary about Pekar’s life. He barely makes a living as a file clerk who sells records on the side. It’s a dead end job with no prospects. Pekar realizes that he has to do something with his life. He is introduced to an underground comic book artist from Philadelphia by the name of Robert Crumb (Urbaniak). Their meeting helps Pekar see the huge potential of comic books. He realizes that they could be a legitimate art form. He decides to use them as a platform to document the every day moments in his own life and those around him, from losing his voice to his battle with cancer.
From the opening credits, presented like panels in comic book, American Splendor is a visually inventive film. Some panels are static snap shots while others come to life with Giamatti as Pekar or the man himself walking the streets of Cleveland. This montage not only establishes the setting but also foreshadows the style and structure of the movie: a self-reflexive mix of fiction and documentary. In addition, the film’s voiceover narration features the real Pekar commenting on his fictional counterpart. He is also presented as an animated character and also played by yet another actor (Donal Logue) in a stage production of his comic book. However, Pulcini and Bergman turn these elements on their ear by presenting the fictional recreations of Pekar’s life realistically and the documentary segments in a more overtly stylized fashion.
The film makes it clear that the two most pivotal events in Pekar’s life were meeting Crumb and his wife, Joyce (Davis)—they are also the two most important people in his life. Meeting Crumb led to the creation of American Splendor and made Pekar realize his true calling. It’s obvious from the first time they meet in person that Harvey and Joyce were made for each other. Their first date defies the norm as they talk about all of their faults and their phobias instead of building themselves up. They have no pretenses about themselves or each other and are able to communicate honestly.
For years, Paul Giamatti has honed his craft as a reliable character actor with memorable supporting roles in films like Donnie Brasco (1997) and Man on the Moon (1999). American Splendor finally gives him a meaty lead role to sink his teeth into. He perfectly captures Pekar’s curmudgeonly attitude and distinctive physical mannerisms right down to his raspy voice. He wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation; instead he shows the different sides of the man. Pekar is not just a cynic but someone who has dreams and aspirations just like anyone else. Giamatti also humanizes Pekar by showing his vulnerable side: his love for his wife, Joyce and his fear of death when he is forced to confront his cancer.
In a nice touch, a mini-comic book comes with the DVD that briefly chronicles Pekar’s experience with having his comic book adapted into a movie.
The disc itself features an engaging audio commentary with the real Harvey Pekar, his wife Joyce, their daughter Danielle, his friend Toby Radloff, filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, and actor Paul Giamatti. Pulcini and Berman talk about how they wanted the documentary segments in the movie to look artificial, like a blank comic book panel, in contrast to the realistic look of the rest of the film. Harvey and his family talk about where the film deviates from reality, for example how he and Crumb really met. Joyce provides some wonderful comments as she talks about how amazed she was at how close Giamatti sounded like her husband. Everyone has a lot of fun on this track as they joke and reminiscence about the film and their experiences. My only complaint is that Giamatti seems a little shy on the commentary, it would have been nice to hear this fascinating actor talk at length about his craft and his take on Pekar.
“Road to Splendor” is a brief update on what Harvey has been up to since the film was made. American Splendor was given an enthusiastic reception at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Throughout it all Harvey remains true to himself, seemingly unfazed by all the attention he receives.
The song, “American Splendor,” by Eytan Mirsky that was featured in the movie can be listened to in its entirety. His vocals sound uncannily like Evan Dando from the Lemonheads.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for the movie.
American Splendor has the same ironic sense of humour and melancholy as Ghost World, another excellent cinematic adaptation of an independent comic book. American Splendor stays true to Pekar’s vision—it refuses to sentimentalize his life, even at the film’s emotional conclusion which is genuinely moving. It is one of the finest comic book adaptations ever put on film because it remains true to its source material and wisely involves its creator in the process of transferring his story from the page to the screen.