"Real life is pretty complex stuff"
Publisher: AV Channel
Mon, 29 November 2004
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American Splendor's (that's how American's spell splendour) superb opening sequence grabbed my full attention from the get go. The picture might be (much like its subject matter) not to everyone's taste. But enough elements came together for me to find it highly entertaining and thoroughly absorbing viewing.
Harvey Pekar is from Cleveland, USA. He spent much of his life working a dead end job, as a filing clerk. He's basically a loser; when we first meet him in the film he has lost his voice from yelling too much and his wife walks out on him. He tries to scream at her to stay. But all that comes out of his mouth are some comical squeaks, as he has rendered himself vocally impotent.
Pekar is an obsessive collector (something I bet many Buttonhole readers can relate to) of records, particularly jazz. He also sells some of his records, but never the good stuff, to make some extra money on the side. At a garage sale, while searching for more jazz records to add to his collection, he meets Robert Crumb. Crumb is another cult comic book legend with a recent movie about his life. Harvey and Crumb become friends, through their mutual love of jazz and comic books. Crumb's success with his unorthodox comics inspires Pekar to start writing comics himself, all based on the mundane experiences of his real life. He shows them to Crumb, who finds them compelling and offers to illustrate them. From there the "American Splendor" comic books become a cult hit, though they still don't bring Harvey enough money for him to leave his job as a clerk.
To be honest, I previously knew very little of Harvey Pekar. And I have never read one of his comics. After seeing this film, I know enough to realise I wouldn't really want to hang out with the guy. His comics probably wouldn't be my cup of tea either, but I wouldn't mind checking them out anyway. He's a depressing kind of fella, the type who seems to wallow in his own misery and always view the glass as being half empty. Basically he's a surly and miserable bastard (much like Ando). But he is also quite an intriguing character. There's something about him and the way he views things that grabs your attention (at least, it grabbed mine). He's upfront and never tries to hide his confusion regarding the world around him, or be something that he is not. He embraces the negative to such an extent that he almost turns it into something positive.
The movie sees Harvey played by Paul Giamatti, in an exceptional performance. It also features the real life Harvey Pekar doing the films narration and appearing in several scenes. So we have the real Harvey telling his story and occasionally being interjected into the procedure, where he is shown in a white background with various props set up around him to comment on the movie or answer questions about his life. Other real life versions of the movie's characters make appearances the same way. Some may find this approach a little jarring, or just plain unnecessary, but personally I thought it worked really well. For me, instead of making the films recreations seem less realistic, it actually made them more so. It also shows just how closely the actors were able to resemble their subjects.
Hope Davis plays Joyce Brabner, who starts off as a big fan of Harvey's comic and ends up as his wife. Davis captures the look, voice and mannerisms of Joyce extremely well and was awarded with a golden globe for her work. Joyce is rather quirky in her own right, a hypochondriac prone to depression, but she is highly intellectual and has a kind heart. Despite the fact that Hope and Harvey often fight, there is a genuine sweetness evident in their relationship. The line Harvey says when he and Joyce meet face to face for the first time is an absolute classic. I won't spoil it for you here.
Then there is Toby Radloff, played by Judah Friedlander. You'll see the real Toby and Judah's movie version and it is virtually impossible to tell them apart. Toby is a self proclaimed "genuine nerd" and he's awesome. Toby's a very sweet guy, impossibly daggy but apparently well aware of it. Joyce diagnoses him as "borderline autistic" and she may well be correct. So likeable is Toby that you can even detect a slight bit of sentimentality from Harvey towards him. Pekar even goes as far as to say that, on some days, he felt it was worth turning up to work, just to hear Toby speak. I can believe that.
The third act of American Splendor is mainly about Harvey dealing with his testicular cancer. Much of this is based on a comic book Harvey and Joyce wrote about the ordeal, called Our Cancer Year. So this is, of course, pretty intense stuff. However, the ending is a lot more upbeat than I was anticipating. Not that I consider that a bad thing. Come to think of it, even for Pekar, it'd be hard not to be upbeat about surviving cancer.
American Splendor is a fresh and exceptionally well structured film, with universally great acting. The picture and sound quality of the DVD is spot on and there are some good quality extras on the disc also. The commentary track is highly recommended; it includes the directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, as well as Harvey and (the man himself) Toby.
Go ahead and buy this DVD. Or at least rent it. Just, please, put that copy of White Girls down! I'm watching you!
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More articles by Hillelman
This movie was so great that I think I will become a Nerd!