Thursday, April 19, 2012

American Splendor

2003. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Paul Giamatti
Harvey Pekar
Hope Davis
Joyce Brabner
Judah Friedlander
9Toby Radloff
James Urbaniak
Madylin Sweeten
Danielle Batone

When most of us think of comic books, we think of costumed heroes with super powers battling outlandish villains. Harvey Pekar, played by both Paul Giamatti and the real Harvey himself, this seemed to extremely limit the types of tales that could be told. He felt the possibilities would be infinite if storylines were more directly drawn from real life. With that in mind, he created “American Splendor,” a comic book series based on his own life. The “ripped from reality” principle is applied to this film. We weave in and out of fictionalized accounts of Harvey’s experiences and his own observations of them. It’s a viewing excursion different than most and superior to the few similarly styled movies I’ve come across. We first meet Harvey shortly before he hatched the idea for his own comic. Things unfold in an almost linear fashion up to and including the filming of this movie. This gives it a wonderfully self-aware quality that comes across as conversational and without the arrogances that seems to be inherent in most such films.

Visually, American Splendor is subtle, yet poignant. Harvey’s cluttered apartment is a perfect representation of the mind he’s able to pull his stories from. Many of the outdoor scenes have a chilly look to them, mirroring his normal disposition. This is interspersed with interviews of Real Harvey, as he’s listed in the credits, his wife Real Joyce (Brabner) and his buddy Real Toby (Radloff). In one brilliant shot we see the actors playing Harvey and Toby (Friedlander) taking a break in the background, completely out of character, while the genuine articles are talking to the camera. If there is one place the visuals falter, it’s in its depiction of Pekar’s final appearance as a guest on “The David Letterman Show.” We saw his first via a clip of the real thing. It’s seamlessly integrated into the film. For the last appearance, that technique is abandoned and we get Giamatti doing the scene. That wouldn’t be bad at all since he is quite good. However, having an actor play Letterman and only showing odd shots of the back of his head is jarring. It feels like a movie that’s been completely open about itself suddenly has something to hide.

Much of the humor is derived from Harvey’s social awkwardness. Despite this and his not-so-sunny demeanor the script, Giamatti’s performance and Real Harvey combine to endow the man with a weird sort of charm. For instance, the first thing he does after meeting Joyce (Davis) face to face for the first time is tell her he’s had a vasectomy. We laugh and wonder what she must be thinking. Still, it’s so typically Harvey that we understand. Essentially, that’s the overwhelming theme of AS. Regardless of all his idiosyncrasies, we wouldn’t have him any other way.

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