Wonderfully American Splendor

Sept. 12, 2003, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 8 months ago

Everyone wants to be a superhero. Maybe they don't really want to be a superhero, with a cape and powers or anything, but they like to think they're heroic; that they're the type of guy who could star in a 4-color comic book. The beauty of American Splendor is in its understanding that even the normal guy, the guy who is most definitely not a superhero, there are (comic book worthy) heroics in his triumphs and his failures.

American Splendor is based on an autobiographical comic book of the same name, one in which writer Harvey Pekar made art of his life as a file clerk (one he never escaped) and popularized the everyman. The movie watches Pekar from his stick-figure beginnings to cult status with his underground comic book hit. His success was due to his honestly funny looks at everything mundane and depressing about ordinary life, and also because of his assistance by friends and illustrators such as the legendary R. Crumb.

American Splendor chronicles Pekar's struggles with marriage, writing and cancer, but his downbeat life is never sugar-coated and instead mined for its inherent bittersweet humor. The movie remains a quirky, finely inventive nod to Pekar's work throughout, with commentary by the real Pekar and comic book touches mixed in with the film.

The title character, Harvey Pekar, is rightfully portrayed by Paul Giamatti as a spectacularly human misanthrope. Giamatti maintains a cranky integrity throughout the movie, displaying a character that never lied about his friends or life in his writing (even if he gave it a negative spin). Pekar's struggles as an author speak to every aspiring writer, and his ability to turn checkout line encounters at the grocery store as well as life-threatening illness into realistic and critically acclaimed humor is admirable. (Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to have been long-time friends with an illustrator of R. Crumb's stature.)

The rest of the cast is similarly strong and Pekar's courtship of future wife Joyce Brabner (the mordantly amazing Hope Davis) provides one of the movie's funniest dynamics. "Some artists draw you like a young Brando. But Crumb draws you like a hairy ape with all those stink lines," Brabner claims over the phone (before meeting Pekar), in one of American Splendor's lovably offbeat encounters. Judah Friedlander is also excellent and believable as Pekar's "genuine nerd friend," Toby Radloff.

As American Splendor progresses, Pekar fights with the corporate mainstream attention he sometimes receives, symbolized by his many now infamous appearances with David Letterman (a poor attempt to plug his comics), and the general struggle to keep writing.

Thoroughly hilarious, American Splendor is a worthy and amusing aside, separate from so much Hollywood movie making.

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