American Splendor. Fine Line Features presents a film written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Based on the American Splendor comic book series by Harvey Pekar and Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for language). Starring Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Babner, Madylin Sweeten, Danielle Batone, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff.

American Splendor

American Splendor is one of the best movies based on a comic book I've ever seen. But, unlike X-Men, Spider-Man, or Hulk, there are no superheroes to be found. Instead, it revolves around underground comic book legend Harvey Pekar, who is as far from a typical comic hero as you could get. He is neurotic, obsessive/compulsive, and hopelessly pessimistic. The fact that he is a real person makes him a fascinating character to base a film around.

Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini had already directed several documentaries, and that experience shows. Made for a trivial amount of money, American Splendor is part drama, part comedy, and part documentary. The meat of the movie revolves around Harvey Pekar as played by character actor Paul Giamatti, but these sequences are interspersed with footage of interviews that the film-makers held with Pekar, and the film is narrated by the real Harvey Pekar, who always acknowledges this is a film about him ("And this is the guy playing me," he says of Giamatti at one point). Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), his adopted daughter, Danielle (Madylin Sweeten), and his nerdy friend, Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), are all given the same treatment as Harvey.

One would think that this rather unconventional approach would hurt the film's character development. This is not the case, however, as the great screenplay and the wonderful acting make the transitions unimportant. Because all of the actors have inhabited their roles completely, it quickly becomes meaningless whether it's the real person or an actor on the screen at the moment.

Pekar's comic book, "American Splendor", will not be known to many Americans. It was started in 1976, with Pekar writing (he can't even draw stick figures well) and comic legend R. Crumb doing the illustrations. The approach he took was radically different from anything else that had come before; instead of superheroes or anthropomorphic animals, "American Splendor" was centered around Harvey and his everyday life working as a file clerk at a hospital. They never really caught on (and still haven't, even with Dark Horse comics handling the distribution), but over time they found a strong cult following. This resulted in several memorable appearances on the "Late Show with David Letterman" before Pekar attacked NBC (Letterman's station at the time) and GE, who sponsored the "Late Show", and was never asked back. Since then, he has become better known through writing and radio, but he isn't exactly a house-hold name.

With two exceptions, American Splendor takes place entirely in the 1970's and '80s. It details his years before "Splendor"; his second failed marriage;the beginning years of "Splendor"; his marriage to Joyce, his third wife; and his successful battle with cancer (chronicled in the comic "Our Cancer Years", written by Harvey and Joyce). We are also introduced to Toby Radloff and other mainstays from Pekar's comics.

There are plenty of visual tweaks used to spice up the film. One of the most remarkable sequences in American Splendor occurs when Harvey (as played by Giamatti) steps into the middle of a blank white screen. As he begins to speak, lines appear in the background; soon, he is standing in the middle of a giant comic book panel. A window appears behind him, opening into the real world. He steps through the window, into the snow, and, as he walks, continues to speak. He steps back into the comic as he finishes up. This scene represents a triumph of acting, writing, and visual effects. Giamatti delivers a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare; detailing a time when he found several other Harvey Pekars in the phone book, he ruminates on life and existance. The technology used in this sequence is not perfect, but it is on the level of many mainstream films. There are many other points in which the world of comics and the real world collide (many of the scene transitions are labeled with panels reading "Two weeks later...", etc.), and on at least one occasion, animated characters appear onscreen with the actors.

The acting is stellar. Paul Giamatti, despite not really looking like Pekar (the film recognizes this on one occasion), invests himself in the character, mastering all of the real Harvey's expressions and mannerisms. As he walks down the street, scowling and silently muttering to himself, we don't need any sort of dialogue to instantly get a feel for the character. This is a career-making performance. As Harvey's wife, Hope Davis is just about as good as Giamatti. Like Giamatti, she captures all of her character's neuroses with ease. Nearly all of the supporting performances are equally excellent.

American Splendor has already been one of the year's most acclaimed movies, winning the top prize for drama at Sundance and the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes. It certainly deserves these honors. It is a stunningly original, mostly brilliant character study. Going into the film, I knew close to nothing about the life of Harvey Pekar; as I left, I felt like I knew him personally, and I couldn't wait to learn more about him. How many 100 minute films - let alone biopics - can claim to have an effect like that? Not many - American Splendor is a rare find.

© 2003 Matt Noller