Film Reviews

DVD Review // American Splendor

December 9, 2011

Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini / Release: Aug 15, 2003 / Fine Line Features / R, 1 hr. 40 min.

Now that I’m all about streaming movies from Netflix and buying those fancy Blu-ray discs for choice collectibles, what should I do with all of these old, dusty DVDs?”  I asked the blind man.  “Review them, grasshopper,” he replied. “Review them.”

American Splendor, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a sour puss’ wet dream.  A striking collage of documentation, clever comedy, and dramatic breakthroughs, the film is explicitly “self-aware” (the best kind, right?).  I’m recalling the ouroboros dynamic seen in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002), in which the actual script is about a screenplay about a writer writing himself into a screenplay about a real book. Is anyone following (’cause I’m not sure I am)?

American Splendor (the film) does for the late Harvey Pekar (1939 – 2010) what Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) does for jazz guitarist Emmet Ray.  It is a successful and humorous docu-dramatic blend of real, fake, and combined sets.  In spite its stylistic excess, I found myself caring deeply for Mr. Pekar and his universe of the socially impaired.

The RunDown (skip if you’re allergic to spoilers; stop reading if you’re allergic to spoiler alerts)

Cleveland’s ’70’s urban underbelly brews a new type of underdog in the genre of graphic novel writing.  Coping with voice impairment—a nasty vocal cord nodule—and a failed marriage, Pekar (played pitch-perfectly by Paul Giamatti) is the quintessential neurotic you’d rather steer clear of on the sidewalk.

Pekar is professionally dissatisfied with human existence.  A self-certified grump, he’s perpetually dismayed by the monotony of the file-clerk lifestyle.  Mr. Boats (in an amusing role for Earl Billings) and Toby Radloff (in an even more amusing role for 30 Rock cast member Judah Friedlander) accompany Harvey as his two humdrum stuck-in-a-rut sidekicks.  Pekar’s brand of existentialism, however, bores much deeper into the minds of his viewers; and for him, purposelessness is not only overwhelmingly rote, but tantamount to a death sentence.

Still, as some of us would-be writers would unwittingly have it, depression very quickly evolves into inspiration.

Harvey, in an autobiographical fugue, writes himself into a childishly rudimentary comic strip of his own life.  Via his slimy well of self-loathing, Harvey discovers a rung of hope in underground graphic sensation Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak).  As such, Crumb’s adaptation of Pekar’s vision takes off, leading Splendor fan Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) to becoming Pekar’s astoundingly tolerable wife.

True story.

Dissection (15 blade)

American Splendor (particularly the comic book series) was a psycho-therapeutic conduit for Harvey.  Despite the various ways his artists drew him, Splendor was less of a persona than it was an opened window into Harvey’s life.  To wit, the series was used to the extent of chronicling his “cancer year” (during which Pekar discovered the “lump” [more on that in the film itself]).

The result was Our Cancer Year, a collaborative effort between Harvey and Joyce, which informs much of the film’s latter half.  As I recall (correctly or not), the discovery of the lump followed a gradually depreciatory series of promotional appearances on the David Letterman Show.

As Splendor fans recall, the Pekar/Letterman partnership abruptly ended with an infuriated Harvey making a follow-up appearance to his historic anti-GE tirade (July 31, 1987), where Letterman’s penchant for exploiting Harvey’s quirks in exchange for a few laughs finally hit a raw nerve.

Shame on you, David.  Good for you, Harvey.

Fortunately for all of those involved (including us), American Splendor doesn’t misuse Harvey’s peccadilloes — as Letterman did.  Instead, Berman and Pulcini intelligently cull together an honest, no-cheap-shots, comic strip interpretation of Pekar’s plebeian plight.  If that sounds like a quasi impossible feat, that’s because it is.  Quasi being the operative term here, of course.  Suffice it to say that Pekar was dismissive of the artificiality of celebrity when finally confronted with national recognition, and Berman/Pulcini soberly adhere to that edict from minute 1 to minute 100.

Harvey Pekar (right) & his wife, Joyce Brabner (left)

What gives Splendor its conspicuous aftertaste, though, is its tightrope balance between gimmick and dramatic focus. There are moments when fact and fiction exist simultaneously on-screen, blending the studio presences of the real Pekar, the real Joyce, the real Toby, with their concurrent actor counterparts.  It manages to document and tell a story interchangeably—almost flippantly, while attaining its dramatic means to build character and narrative trajectory. Splendor also starkly succeeds in dissolving to and from (and juxtaposing) actual Splendor comic strips with film—almost as if it calls attention to the storyboards and source-work of the filmmaking process itself, making it a neat visual experience.

While the direction never slips from being consistently smart and visually inventive, Splendor’s leverage, no doubt, rests on its actors and the presence of those they represent. Paul Giamatti is Harvey in every conceivable way. Here, there’s an unmistakable homogeneity between the cast and the real Pekar Ilk.

Hope Davis, for instance, deftly captures the bookworm quirks of the anti-yuppie her character is based on.  She works well with Giamatti, being the maternal neutrality to Harvey’s crabby fits. This makes for good humor. Judah Friedlander’s Toby Radloff adeptly seizes the real Toby’s semi-autistic, nerdling manners.

One may think it a bit overwrought, and perhaps a bit disrespectful, but once we meet the real Toby in-film, we see that Friedlander did his homework.  Urbaniak’s R. Crumb, while narrowly represented in Splendor (for good reasons), is eerily analogous to the real R. Crumb of Terry Zwigoff’s excellent documentary, Crumb (1994).

Zwigoff’s film, produced by David Lynch, can almost be conceived as the Would-be Crumb Actor’s Manual for what Urbaniak is able to replicate in American Splendor.

Nobler still, Berman and Pulcini’s efforts also reach beyond postmodern gimmick and manage to tell a compelling story.  In it you’ll find moments of grinch-hilarity.  One moment which comes to mind is Harvey and Joyce’s inaugural rendezvous at the airport.  Here, Harvey coldly shakes her hand and confesses to having had a vasectomy (you know, just to get “that” out of the way).  And when the film veers into Pekar’s “cancer-year”, there is a strong sense of drama and empathy.

American Splendor is a pleasantly unpredictable film (even by 2011’s standards), and in that vein, Pekar’s direct involvement only moved in tandem with the unspoken covenant he shared with his fans:  Thou Shalt Be Honest.  He didn’t hide the ugliness of his life, or his imperfections, but instead re-channeled them into something we can all relate to.  For that, we are indebted to him.


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