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"AMERICAN SPLENDOR"
(2003) (Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A grumpy file clerk becomes something of a celebrity when his underground comic book about life's mundane matters becomes a hit.
PLOT:
Harvey Pekar (PAUL GIAMATTI) is a grumpy, middle-aged man who works as a file clerk with ultra-nerd Toby Radloff (JUDAH FRIEDLANDER) for Mr. Boats (EARL BILLINGS) at a V.A. hospital, and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

After a chance meeting with illustrator Robert Crumb (JAMES URBANIAK), Harvey decides to try his hand at drawing. He isn't any good, but Crumb is impressed by his writing and soon agrees to illustrate a comic book about everyday trivial and mundane matters that's to be known as "American Splendor."

Divorced several times over, Harvey gets a letter from comic book store owner Joyce Brabner (HOPE DAVIS) about his work. The two are soon an item and quickly marry. Yet, despite having a loving wife and being famous - including appearing on Late Night with David Letterman - Harvey is still a grumpy and cantankerous sort.

When a sudden serious illness affects him, however, and a young girl, Danielle (MADYLIN SWEETEN), comes into his and Joyce's lives, Harvey gets the chance to rethink his position on himself and the world in which he lives.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Standup comedians have long known that one of the best ways to elicit laughs from their audiences is to make jokes about things with which most people can identify. Namely, those are the goofy, ironic and funny mundane events that occur to all of us day in and day out.

The likes of Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld took that even farther by creating TV shows based on such material, with the latter excelling at making the commonplace and ordinary hilarious. Although he's not a comedian per se and wasn't attempting to generate laughs, Harvey Pekar did the same decades earlier. In using the trials and tribulations of his life, he created the comic book "American Splendor" back in the 1970s.

Not an alter-ego changing superhero like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, Pekar's main character was an ordinary and agitated sourpuss with a darkly sarcastic bent. In other words, it was the author himself. While I never knew of the man or the comic book until just recently, I've heard that both were and still are something of an acquired taste.

Appropriately enough, so is the movie based on Pekar and his work, titled, of all things, "American Splendor." As written and directed by the filmmaking team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("The Young and the Dead," "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's), the film is an intriguing if disjointed experimental work.

While some movie adaptations of comic books have tried to keep as much of the look, feel and sensation of the source material as possible, Berman and Pulcini have taken that a step - okay, many steps - further. Basically an existential breaking of the proverbial fourth wall - the unofficial and usually unrecognized boundary between the work and the audience - the film is certainly not bereft of creative and imaginative flourishes.

There are actual comic book panels scattered throughout the movie, along with the cartoon "bubble thoughts" above heads in the live action footage. The boldest move, though, is having the real Harvey Pekar and others appear in the film, often alongside the performers playing them (in some behind the scenes moments), where they comment on them and the production.

At times, the mix is imaginative, heady fun, while at others it feels a little too cute and pretentious for its own good. If anything, however, it certainly keeps the viewer engaged simply by being different and making one wonder what additional bizarre bit of filmmaking might next appear.

Like any episode of "Seinfeld," a great deal of the film is something about next to nothing. While that part of the filmmakers' script doesn't come close to what the cast and crew of that sitcom routinely practiced to perfection, there are some funny moments, lines of dialogue and performances.

Chief among the latter is Paul Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar," "Planet of the Apes") and his masterful impression and otherwise nailing down of Pekar's persona. Having the actor and real person appear together is always a risky move since viewers will inevitably compare the two to see how well the latter impersonates the former. Fortunately, Giamatti is very good in the role. The inside joke, of course, is that it doesn't really matter since the various illustrators of the comic book always drew Pekar completely different anyways.

In comparison to their real-life counterparts who also appear in the film, Hope Davis ("About Schmidt," "Arlington Road") and especially Judah Friedlander ("Meet the Parents," "Zoolander") are also quite good playing Pekar's wife and coworker. The latter gets some funny moments embodying an uber-nerd who thinks of the original "Revenge of the Nerds" movie as an inspirational call to arms of sorts for his kind.

The best moments in the film, however, are in watching the real Pekar duke it out with the real David Letterman in some archival footage from Letterman's late night talk show. Comically confrontational, their interplay - at least according to the film - turned so contentious that their final appearance together apparently never aired (it's presented here in a less than satisfying recreation).

Perhaps that's just one of the many points that fit in with Pekar's persona and way of looking at life. Just because you expect something to happen, doesn't mean it automatically will. It isn't exactly the happiest or most optimistic thought.

Yet, by the time the film ends with Pekar stating that we all eventually lose our war with life but the goal is to win a few battles along the way, you'll probably agree. Flawed but never dull and with good performances as well as a welcomed imaginative flair, "American Splendor" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 21, 2003 / Posted August 22, 2003


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