Movies: American Splendor (2003)

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by Tom Johnson

Every year it seems, some movie I see stands out immediately upon seeing it. Most memorably, Magnolia did it, American Movie did it, High Fidelity did it, Punch Drunk Love did it, and today, American Splendor did it.

American Splendor is the real-life story of comic book writer and file clerk Harvey Pekar. I say “writer” because Harvey overcame his inability to draw by passing on his stories — literally stories of everyday life, from watching the neighbors move furniture to addressing health concerns — to fringe comic-book artists such as R. Crumb to illustrate. In the meantime, Harvey dealt with real-life, losing two wives to divorce as his own habits and obsessions prevented him from connecting with others in a way the really cemented his place in humanity. Along the way, and because of his graphic novels, he meets his match in Joyce, a comic book store owner who follows his exploits in the work he publishes.

The beauty of American Splendor is not just that this socially retarded individual is somehow able to overcome his deficits and leave a lasting impression. It’s that this quirky, odd, difficult human exhibits the same tendencies we all do. He just doesn’t hide them behind the “face” we all put on when we get up in the morning. Because of this, Harvey is able to see everything in a slightly different way — if overly negative — that makes for good reading material. The idea of someone publishing comic books around the trials and tribulations of everyday life as dealt with by your very ordinary, average file clerk seems absurd, but it’s his particular take on everyday situations that reels in the reader, or viewer in the case of this film.

Paul Giamatti takes on the role of Harvey, turning in the kind of performance that elevated Phillip Seymour Hoffman to the kind of actor that I’ll gladly watch in anything he undertakes. Giamatti proves he’s one of those actors that finds pure joy in the act of acting and seems to have no qualms painting less-than-flattering portraits of the human condition. Paired with Giamatti is the real-life Pekar, who appears to fill in blanks here and there documentary style. The twist is that sometimes it’s neither Giamatti nor Pekar but an animated Harvey that appears.

Luckily, this techique was applied skillfully and minimally so as not to become a gimmick. In other seens, the real humans behind the characters also appear, making the viewer realize that, for example, an over-the-top “nerd” performance by Judah Friedlander as coworker and eventual friend Toby Radlof is really an on-the-mark portrayal of a living comic book character.

So “nerdy” is Radlof that MTV picked up on him via Pekar’s self-deprecating and destructive appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.

Real life isn’t pretty like your typical Hollywood film would have you believe, and American Splendor, both in the form of this film and the comic book, illustrates this fact in a way that we don’t wind up walking out thinking, “Well, duh, life sucks — we all know that.” The bigger story at play is that people find each other and find things that redeem them from the doldrums of everyday life.

Pekar couldn’t draw but had a story to tell, and finally figured out that through comics he could present life in all its ugly beauty. His stories saved him at a point when he had nothing else to lose. That he never makes a commercial success out of his work even after national exposure from David Letterman is exactly the point: Harvey does what he does purely because he has to, because it keeps him as close to sane and normal as he’ll ever get.

This point couldn’t be rendered more perfectly than when a playwrite undertakes the task of presenting American Splendor for the stage. Harvey and Joyce’s first date is, in real life, a butchered mess that ends with her vomitting over and over in his bathroom, but this scene is butchered in a typical, sacharine-sweet and entirely predictable manner for the stage, completely missing the very point of why these two would have to get together in the first place – no one else would possibly want to have them.

Just like real-life, their love and life together is odd and awkward, and rather than learning to accept each other for their faults, like every typical Hollywood movie wants you to think, real people like Harvey and Joyce simply learn to live around them.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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