American Splendor Review
By Shawn McKenzie 08/29/2003
Sometimes I’m fascinated with critical perception. Being a Denver-based critic myself, I am one of the last major market critics to see limited release feature films. In the meantime, bigger market critics from New York and Los Angeles get to chime in with their opinions of a movie far ahead of me. I have seen the phrase “one of the year’s ten best” to describe the movie adaptation of the underground comic book American Splendor. While it probably won’t make my year-end top ten, there are several things about it that make it a great movie.
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), a raspy-voiced, middle-aged man living in Cleveland, has not much going for him. He works as a file clerk at a V.A. hospital, and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The only things he seems to like are collecting jazz records and complaining. Two people he regularly complains about are Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), a slow-talking goofy-looking guy who finds pride in being a nerd after seeing the classic 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds, and Mr. Boats (Earl Billings), his boss at the hospital. One fateful day, Harvey meets Robert “R.” Crumb (James Urbaniak), an underground cartoonist whose counterculture material was rising in popularity, at a yard sale while looking for rare jazz records. He is so inspired by Crumb’s drawings that he decides to give it a try himself. He quickly discovers that he isn’t any good at the illustrations, but not too bad at the writing. Harvey shows his cartoons to Crumb, who is impressed by his writing and soon agrees to illustrate a comic book with Harvey’s writings. It wouldn’t be a superhero comic, but one about everyday life, and they would call it American Splendor. It becomes an underground hit, and it attracts a comic book store co-owner in Delaware named Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis.) She writes him hoping to get a copy of the latest issue of the comic book (after her hippie partner sells the last copy) and they are soon regularly corresponding. She meets him one day in Cleveland, and they quickly bond. Despite already having gone through a couple of unsuccessful marriages, Harvey marries her a week later. His fame starts rising when he begins making regular appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” but it doesn’t make him any happier. Two things happen to him that makes him finally take perspective of his life. He develops cancer, which brings a young girl named Danielle Batone (Madylin Sweeten) into his life. After being diagnosed with cancer, He and Joyce collaborate on a comic cook called Our Cancer Year, which documented his fight against the disease. One of the illustrators of the book named Fred (James McCaffrey) kept bringing around his daughter Danielle while they worked, and eventually Harvey and Joyce took her in. Even though he never wanted kids, he comes to accept Danielle as his own daughter. All throughout these adventures, he continued to work at the hospital, up until his retirement in 2001.
I think the reason why those critics loved the movie is the unique way it blended fictional and documentary styles together. The directors/screenwriters, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, already have some experience in making documentaries about celebrity topics, so they were a perfect choice to helm this project. The movie spliced together interviews with the real Harvey, Joyce, Toby, and Danielle, with the fictional portrayal of his life being played by actors. One of the various illustrations of Harvey throughout the years represented his thoughts. Like The Hulk, the scenes transitioned like a comic book by framing them in boxes. I was also glad to see that they were able to acquire the actual Letterman footage for the Letterman segments, instead of having someone play the gap-toothed host and reenacting the appearances.
As for the performances, I see award potential. Not Oscar mind you, though some of them deserve it. The movie is being released in August in limited release, which means the Academy will virtually ignore it. I do predict several Independent Spirit Awards nominations. Giamatti and Davis are awesome as the leads. I have always been impressed with Giamatti, and I had been waiting for him finally to get a leading role in something. This one is going to be his starting benchmark, and will possibly lead to more leading roles. He has great chemistry with Davis in the movie. How do I know that they did such a great job? There is a scene where Giamatti meets Harvey and Davis meets Joyce, and it is just creepy how accurate they emulate these people. You don’t often see interaction between actors and the subjects they are portraying onscreen, and it is cool to witness.
So what if I don’t end up putting American Splendor on my top ten list? It is still an original, fun movie to check out for fans of the comic book or of Giamatti (I can’t be the only Giamatti fan out there.) If not for those reasons, then check it out because you will see a movie that truly breaks the rules of how a biopic
or a documentary is supposed to play, and you will be happy that you did.
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