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by Jordan Hiller


 





AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003) 

The press screenings for Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s docu/bio/dramedy American Splendor were packed to full capacity. The press agencies were urging all media outlets to RSVP early because seats were going fast. “Exciting”, I thought,“I better call a few times just to make sure I’m on the list”. This film had an aura and the vibrations emanating therefrom pulsed with an extraordinary confidence.

The faithful and always eager critics obliged and came out, like disheveled sea lions converging on the Arctic shores in mating season to fawn over the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner and to ogle the sure to be deemed “virtuoso” performances of Paul (Planet of the Apes) Giamatti as surly, strange underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar (pronounced Pea-Car) and “it” actress Hope Davis as his neurotic, lazily ambitious wife, Joyce.

Virtuoso means a person with masterly skill or technique in the arts. I looked it up and...

...I admit it. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, based on a number of showcasing performances, are officially dubbed persons possessing masterly skill and technique in the art of acting.

Are you picking up on the faint aroma of sarcasm projecting from the last paragraph or so? What’s bothering me here so much that I have to commence these otherwise pleasant proceedings with such negativity? Have I become as perpetually morbid and chronically unenthusiastic as the maestro Pekar himself? Why can’t I just be happy with the perfectly entertaining, creatively produced, imaginatively imagined dirty, smudged, red, white, and blue bowl of fruit cocktail that is American Splendor?

The answer in a single word: hype.  I expected more from a movie that took home gold in Cannes and wowed ‘em at Sundance. Where was the urgency, the importance, the relevance? Harvey Pekar is a real person. His life is worthy of a movie, but he’s no John Nash. He’s not even John Holmes.

 Here’s the hard sell on Pekar:  Grumpy Cleveland file clerk with the mind of a philosopher and the demeanor of a plumber makes it (barely) as a cult comic (not the superhero kind, but the “graphic novel” kind) writer and tops it all off by assembling a dysfunctional family unit and whipping cancer’s unmerciful ass. Oh yeah – and the comic he writes, called American Splendor, is about Harvey Pekar, the grumpy Cleveland file clerk with the mind of a…you get it. The movie, then, is a reflection of a comic which is a reflection of the genuine article. And to Berman and Pulcini’s great credit, they do a wonderful job of intertwining comic book art and paneling with live action footage, storyboard recreations, and present day interviews with retired file clerk Harvey Pekar to expertly mold the most surreal, and perhaps best film based on a comic book that actually maintains the feel of the comic it claims to represent (although Richie Rich is a close second).

The film is entirely self aware and that is part of Pekar’s humor and paranoia with which every strip of celluloid seeks to convey. Harvey Pekar is the centerpiece here because the writers evidently found him most intriguing, and no doubt he is. I would never argue otherwise, but I still can’t as easily access (as other critics apparently have) the splendor in the good American Splendor as naturally as I did the beauty in the phenomenal American Beauty (to make an unfair comparison, but both did win awards and are about the “complexity of ordinary life”). The following may be why I’m having so much trouble here.

The biopic. A film version of the literary equivalent biography. Done many times and can range from marvelous (Malcolm X) to atrocious (Cobb). My problem with biopics is that they tend to make great previews but unfulfilling movies. There is something about a spectacular true event, clouded by the passage of time yet given new vitality via film, which tantalizes. I remember being pumped to see Blow and Ali, to name two disappointments from the last few years, because the previews were searing and passionate. Johnny Depp seduces the room with a confident saunter as he embodies George Jung, king of the cocaine fueled 70’s. Will Smith reincarnates Muhammad Ali, as he straddles the ropes triumphantly; shaking his gloved fist to incite and electrify the thunderous crowd by the rumble in the jungle. My heart pounded. The movies themselves…uninspiring - and I even know why. Because the fatal flaw of a biopic is that it seeks to render every single significant event in the subject’s life, regardless of the art-form of filmmaking or the integrity of storytelling. Sometimes it feels like you are watching individual one act plays (Ali fights Frazier, Ali refuses to go to Vietnam, Ali meets Malcolm) awkwardly and forcefully strung together. It is quite the dilemma for a competent filmmaker. As a storyteller the segment does not fit and merely weighs down the “plot”, but as a biographer, how can you skip the draft dodging episode in Ali’s career?

American Splendor occasionally dips into this realm of story suffering for authenticity, particularly with the seemingly extraneous (story-wise) cancer chapter at the tail end of the picture.

The bulk of the movie remains interesting and watchable, but that real connection that the audience develops with the truly great films is impossible here because Pekar and his film are off-putting, abrasive, and remain aloof throughout.

Perhaps I can isolate the problem further after getting a taste of the comic from a spread in last week’s EW and from the production notes. The bottom line for me is that I don’t find Pekar’s writing too compelling or particularly humorous. Conceptually, a comic based on ordinary life and its inevitable complications is novel, but the product itself is as moving as a hybrid between Archie Pal & Gals and Maus. It’s difficult to make something excellent from merely good source material (See John Grisham movie as compared to Shakespeare movie).

The characters themselves are portrayed with moderate complexity (mainly insanity with fits of sympathy eliciting misery) despite the stunning and VIRTUOSO performances themselves. It is a bonus treat here because we get to see the real life Pekar clan along side their Hollywood versions. A cool gimmick, but again, it puts up a wall between our commitment to the film as it becomes harder to define what and who exactly we are committing to. Will the real Harvey Pekar please stand up?

Overall, it’s rather good, but you’ll see I’m the only one stopping there and not getting caught up in the PR machine’s hype. I can’t praise this film as being any better than another Paul Giamatti bio/dramedy, Private Parts. Both films are likeable, well spun, self aware depictions of unattractive losers making it on uncommon talent in obscure entertainment venues, and both films feature David Letterman interviews. 

I guess I have my work cut out for me. The opposition will be fierce. American Splendor already took top honors in Utah and France, but I’ll be damned if it wins anything in this country!

---

Extra Points: You can almost ignore everything I wrote above because this film is a must see for one reason only: A scene involving a road trip to see the newly released ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ movie, followed by an in depth discussion of what the film’s message was regarding nerds and jocks.

Jewish Connection: One scene has a Portnoyesque Harvey mentioning that he is a “Yid” as he is expressing frustration after being stuck behind an old Jewish woman on a checkout line.


Send comments to bangitout.com movie editor, Jordan Hiller: jtrick1@aol.com | bangitout.com


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