American Splendor

American Splendor

USA, 2003. Rated R. 101 minutes.

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, Madylin Sweeten, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff
Writers: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, based on the comic book series American Splendor by Harvey Pekar, and on the comic book series Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner
Original Music: Mark Suozzo, Eytan Mirsky (title song)
Cinematography: Terry Stacey
Producer: Ted Hope
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm feature profile and interview with Paul Giamatti.

P ostmodernism.

People like to throw the term around without knowing what it actually means—so many people, in fact, that it has become a bit of a joke, as evidenced by the existence of "The Postmodernism Generator," a site that generates pompous essays that are entirely meaningless.

The term does mean something, though. Postmodernism is an artistic movement or trend that embraces ambiguity and fragmentation while rejecting genre distinctions. Postmodernist art is ironically self-aware, admitting to its own subjectivity and manipulation, acknowledging that there is man behind the curtain. It deconstructs the iconography and classic storytelling of the past, offers trivia and chaos in their stead as a response to a chaotic world that renders individuals and art increasingly trivial. Postmodern films include Spike Jonze's Adaptation, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, Stephen Frears' High Fidelity, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, and pretty much anything by Quentin Tarantino, to name but a few. And American Splendor. Movies don't get any more deconstructed and self-referential than this.

How even to describe American Splendor? If Seinfeld was a television show about nothing, then American Splendor is a movie based on a comic book about nothing. American Splendor the comic book consists of the observations of Harvey Pekar, an angry, often disagreeable cynic who works as a file clerk at a Cleveland V.A. hospital. His motto (and the tagline of the film): "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

The movie portrays Pekar (Paul Giamatti) as an obsessive-compulsive grouch abandoned by his wife and stuck in a dead-end life. An avid collector of just about anything, including comic books, Pekar meets local boy Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) at a junk sale. Crumb eventually becomes a renowned underground comic book author (as well as the subject of Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed documentary Crumb), and Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti in AMERICAN SPLENDORhis success inspires Pekar to make his mark on the world, or at least to leave something behind. In the Seventies, he begins to write unsentimental, harshly truthful comic books about his own life, which are then illustrated by Crumb and others, because Pekar can't even draw a straight line. The comic books depict everyday events, Pekar's advice on such things as how to select the fastest line at the grocery store, and his oddball friends, including self-proclaimed, quintessential nerd Toby (Judah Friedlander). Remarkably, the books are an underground hit, bringing him notoriety, appearances on David Letterman, stage adaptations, and the interest of his future wife Joyce Brabner (the wonderful Hope Davis, never afraid to get frumpy), who has an equally sardonic and matter-of-fact take on the world. The books do not, however, bring him much money—and still haven't, according to Pekar.

Pekar's a pretty postmodern guy, but that's not all that makes American Splendor postmodern. Drawing on their background as documentarians and inspired by such films as Crumb and 24-Hour Party People, writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have created a remarkable amalgamation of the real and the fictionalized. American Splendor doesn't just have character-actor-extraordinaire Paul Giamatti embodying an uncanny recreation of Harvey Pekar; it has the real Harvey Pekar narrating and interpolating, including comments on the cinematic adaptation itself. The real Joyce and others also appear. With one exception, the David Letterman appearances aren't restaged—the actual footage is used, merged into the film. Comic book-style panels and captions provide the film's transitions, and sometimes Pekar appears as an animated character.

The continual shifts between real and fake sounds jarring, but it isn't. Rather, it makes perfect sense. It's a tremendously postmodern adaptation of tremendously postmodern work. Pulcini handled editing duties, and has skillfully cut the film in a way that holds together thematically. In a recent interview with AboutFilm, Berman and Pulcini characterized their movie as the opposite of the Dogme school of filmmaking (e.g., Breaking the Waves). Instead of applying documentary techniques to narrative films, they have applied narrative techniques to a documentary film. You have to wonder, though, how genuine Pekar's blunt, acerbic, self-deprecating persona really is. Pekar and Joyce have repeatedly said that all the attention has not changed Pekar at all. But if, as some say, observing something changes it, then how can Pekar be unaffected by his audience? People do behave differently when other people are paying attention—we see evidence of that on "reality" TV every night. How much of the Pekar we see is really his natural self, and how much of it is him playing to an audience? It's a nagging question that the film leaves unanswered. At the very least, the attention focused on Pekar must have reinforced his persona—perhaps causing it to become more exaggerated, or preventing other changes that he might have undergone over time.

That does not mean, however, that Pekar has no story arc. The key relationship of the film, according to the directors, is that between a man and his art form. Because his art form is basically himself in comic book form, that means the key relationship of the film is between Pekar and himself. We see Pekar's efforts to accept himself as he is and to express himself—and to build something resembling a successful nuclear family in spite of it.

Nevertheless, American Splendor is not a movie for people who love Story. Because the film is more documentary than narrative, it is a bit flat from a dramatic standpoint. American Splendor is not a great story well told. It is a movie for people who love character and dialogue—for people who are happy to have a window opened into an unusual individual's life with a gift for unusual self-expression. And for people who just can't get themselves enough of that postmodernism.

Review © August 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2003 New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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