El Bicho's Hive

A Collection of Reviews Covering the Worlds of Art and Entertainment alongside other Snobbish Ramblings.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Written and Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Based on the comic book series American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and the comic book series Our Cancer Year written by Pekar and Joyce Brabner

American Splendor the movie is a hybrid biography/documentary that adapts the works of comic book writer Harvey Pekar. It uses dramatization by actors in combination with footage of the real people involved, similar to crime re-enactment programs. This is a great artistic choice that the filmmakers make because Harry’s comic books, which are made up of poignant, personal stories that comprise the mundane thoughts and details of his everyday life, also blend fact and fiction. The cinematography and post production do a great job of creating the look of a comic book, better than some other comic book adaptations.

I have enjoyed Paul Giamatti since Private Parts and once again he delivers an amazing performance. Playing real people can be a difficult task for actors, but Giamatti has the extra burden of having Harvey appear in the movie alongside him. He meets the challenge and when Paul and Harvey transition between each other, it’s seamless. Hope Davis, a stage actress, continues to get film work because of performances like this one. She brings a realism and believability to Joyce’s neuroses, which could have been played too broadly trying for laughs. They are both character actors with star talent, who cast aside ego and dive right into their parts, not caring how they appear so they can find the truth in the characters.

Even though Paul Giamatti brilliantly portrays Harvey, the real Harvey is used as the film's narrator. This is another ingenious storytelling element since Harvey’s voice is what shapes the narrative of the comics. The movie starts with Harvey as a young child on Halloween without a costume. All the other kids are dressed as superheroes. When asked who he is, he replies, "I'm Harvey Pekar," already showing signs of frustration with superheroes, which later becomes the impetus for writing his own comics. It also foreshadows Harvey’s maverick ways.

Harvey works as a file clerk for the Veterans Administration in Cleveland. He’s a jazz aficionado and comic book collector whose home resembles a pack rat's nest, filled with treasures visible only to a few serious collectors. He is pessimistic regarding just about every facet of life. It's no surprise that his second wife is dumping him in the opening moments of the film.

Frustrated by the state of comics and seeing the success that his friend Robert Crumb is starting to achieve, Harvey starts to doodle his own ideas for a comic with stick figures and talking balloons. He details his own story, not saving planets from alien races, but the small, daily struggles everyone can identify with as we attempt to live and survive, such as being annoyed by slow people in the grocery store check-out line. Crumb likes what he sees and asks Harvey if he can take the stories and draw them.

American Splendor the comic book becomes a minor underground hit. Since it details his life, friends and coworkers appear in the different issues, and all seem to be happy with it. The complaints he usually deals with are people wanting to know why they aren't in the latest book. They appear in the film as themselves and there are also characters based on them portrayed by actors.

In a comic book store in Delaware, one co-owner, Joyce Brabner, realizes her partner sold their last issue of American Splendor before Joyce could buy a copy. She decides the quickest way to get the missing issue is to call Harvey directly. They strike up a correspondence and a friendship. She has her own neuroses, mainly hypochondria, so they have things in common. Harvey talks her into coming to meet him in Cleveland and over the course of weekend she decides they should get married.

He gains a little notoriety when he starts making appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, which is where I first discovered Harry. It makes me long for the days when Dave would have on other "interesting" people such as Andy Kaufman and Brother Theodore and not the usual Hollywood hack plugging whatever lame product they were currently hawking, but alas, that’s a story for another day. Harry gets recognized on the street, but his new fame doesn't crossover to impact sales of his books, making the appearances not worth his time or aggravation.

Joyce starts to suffer from depression. She wants to have children, but they had agreed before they got married that they wouldn't have any. Joyce is rethinking this, but Harvey is pretty firm in his decision. Finding something that gives her life meaning, Joyce leaves the country to do charity work. Harry has trouble functioning without her.

After about two weeks of Joyce’s absence, Harry implodes with a very confrontational appearance on Late Night. This was the only sequence that I didn't enjoy. The actor’s voice didn't sound like Dave, so it stood out briefly. I wasn't sure if it was because his voice is so well known or because we see and hear video of Dave earlier in the film. It was one flawed moment that stood out because the rest of the film was so well put together.

Harry develops cancer and he and Joyce deal with it the way Harvey deals with everything: through his art. The cancer brings them closer together and even brings a daughter into their lives. It’s a love story with a sweet ending where even a bitter curmudgeon can come out reasonably happy. When Harvey started the comic book, the title was meant to be ironic. He had no idea it was actually prophetic.