American Splendor

The American Splendor comic book by Harvey Pekar is not the typical comic book. Instead of following superheroes out saving the world, it chronicles the daily tribulation of its author, a file clerk in a VA hospital in Cleveland. Pekar is a pessimistic schlub, yet a gifited writer who has won awards, had a play based on his life, and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman (when it was good). Pekar is a unique character, and American Splendor the movie is no different. If anything, it is fascinating to watch how writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (The Young and the Dead, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's) how they decide to break many of the steadfast rules of filmmaking. In fact, with all the adaptations of comic books in the market today, this film and Ghost World, another underground comic with some similar themes, are probably two of the better ones.

Within the first couple minutes of the film, Berman and Pulcini show the actual Pekar and have him address the audience directly. He will give some additional background on what happened, or offer up his opinion on what he just saw on screen. Other characters, including Pekar's wife Joyce Brabner and some of Pekar's co-workers pop in periodically. It's a strange mix of story and documentary, and gets even stranger when the scene stops and Paul Giamatti (Confidence, Big Fat Liar), who plays Pekar in the film, gets off the set and walks by the real Pekar who is commenting on the scene. Berman and Pulcini also sometimes use titles and animation, to turn the film into a living comic book.

The result is a uniquely original film about a uniquely original person. American Splendor follows Pekar over the course of nearly thirty years, from the divorce of his second wife to a particularly troubled time in his life in the 80s. The film is based on Pekar's American Splendor comic books, and Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel by Pekar and Brabner. Pekar has the unique ability to find the worst aspect of any situation he is in. His life is going nowhere and he constantly complains, yet one gets the feeling that he is strangely content, and that complaining about things is just the way he is. In this sense, Pekar is one of the great writer's that writes what he knows; his life and his experiences.

Pekar's life changed when he met Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, No Such Thing), the man who started the underground revolution in comics. The two shared a love of comics and jazz, and Crumb began illustrating Pekar's stories. Later, he met his third wife Brabner (Hope Davis, The Secret Lives of Dentists, About Schmidt), herself a truly bizarre person. In other words, the two make a good match. Nothing much happens in American Splendor, but by the time ends, one gets a good sense of whom Pekar actually is, and he makes sense in his strange way. Giamatti and Davis a great actors, and fully immerse themselves into the roles of Pekar and Brabner. Although the film belongs to Giamatti, it's another excellent showcase for Davis, who seems to relish seeking out diverse roles. She frequently works in smaller films, but certainly has the talent to succeed in the big time.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated R for language.

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