American Splendour (15)

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The ViewBirmingham Review

StarStarStarStarStar
Review byMatthew Turner25/11/2003

Five out of Five stars
Running time: 101 mins

Inventive, original and very, very funny, American Splendor is brilliantly directed and features terrific performances by Giamatti and Davis – a very early contender for the Best Films Of 2004.

Despite the fact that it has enough in common with Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World to suggest that the two films will almost certainly appear on double bills in the future, it’s entirely possible that you’ve never seen a film quite like American Splendor before.

Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and based on the semi-autobiographical comic books by Harvey Pekar, American Splendor brilliantly combines fictional scenes with real-life scenes, comic panels and behind-the-scenes scenes to create something that’s both completely original and, ultimately, rather moving.

It is also very, very funny, with terrific performances from both Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. As such, it’s an early contender for one of the best films of the year.

Grouchy, Put Upon, Neurotic, Jazz-Lover

Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar, a grouchy, neurotic, put-upon, jazz-loving character with a lot of anger against the world, who works as a file clerk in a hospital. (If any of this sounds familiar, the character of Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, was more or less directly based on Pekar).

As luck would have it, Pekar befriends cartoonist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) and persuades him to illustrate stories based on the everyday ‘tragedies’ of his own life, stories that Pekar himself storyboards with the aid of stick-figures.

The resulting series of ‘American Splendor’ comic books bring Harvey to the attention of Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who seems, in the words of one astute critic, “like a grown-up Enid from Ghost World” and when she comes to visit, she recognises a kindred spirit and they get married two days later.

There is no actual plot, as such, then – Harvey continues with his comic books, detailing both his own life and the lives of his friends and co-workers, including Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), a genial nerd who was almost certainly the inspiration for the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy. The only thing that really resembles a plot is Harvey’s cancer scare – this is taken directly from Our Cancer Year, a comic book by both Pekar and Brabner.

The style of the film is both audacious and original. Initially we hear the real Harvey Pekar on the voiceover, musing about “this guy who’s playing me” as we watch Giamatti grumbling around his Cleveland neighbourhood. Later on, the real Harvey appears onscreen, documentary-style as he’s asked questions by an off-screen interviewer and then, bizarrely, he appears onscreen alongside Giamatti as if the two were relaxing off-camera while waiting for a camera set-up.

We also get to meet the real Joyce and the real Toby and in each case, we marvel at how perfectly the actors have captured their real-life counterparts. In addition, we see Harvey in several comic book incarnations, since his stories were illustrated by several different artists over the years.

Extremely Clever Film

The film is extremely clever, brilliantly written and very funny. One of the best sequences involves Harvey’s various appearances on the Letterman Show – he was a regular throughout the 1980s until an ill-advised rant brought his gig to an end. We’re shown footage of his real appearances, but for the rant scene, Giamatti takes over and it’s filmed from an unusual angle, as if we’re watching from the wings, cringing.

There are several great lines and the performances are nothing short of astonishing, with Giamatti perfectly recreating Harvey’s strangled delivery and wild-eyed demeanour and Hope Davis completely inhabiting Joyce. It’s also extremely moving in places and there’s an ‘everyday superhero’ vibe running through the film (enforced by the opening scene of Pekar trick or treating as a child, as himself) that serves as the film’s message, of sorts.

In short, if you liked Ghost World, then American Splendor has your name on it. Funny, moving and full of surprises, it’s the most original film of the year. Highly recommended.

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American Splendour (15)
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Content updated: 18/11/2017 14:10

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