Classic Review – American Splendor (2003)


American Splendor

Directed by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring Paul Giamatti, James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar

Review by Jordan

“OK. This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere.”

“Ordinary life it pretty complex stuff,” moans the disillusioned, listless and inwardly fuming Harvey Pekar (played with tremendous realism and commitment by a never-better Paul Giamatti) to a young Robert Crumb (Urbaniak) when explaining how the comic series based on his lifeless, depressing existence is to read and appear, and considering the way in which Pekar handles and reacts to both undesirable and desirable events in his life, complex it certainly appears.

This comic series would be called American Splendor, and go on to become an underground sensation, with fans revelling in its un-stylised, morbidly truthful depiction of the mundane American way. Though never quitting his full-time job as a file clerk, Splendor was the catalyst for Pekar’s third, and ultimately successful marriage, and its reputation, as well as the reputation of its neurotic (possibly depressed) writer and leading man, resulted in him becoming a regular on The Late Show with David Letterman (though, as many would know, this came to an abrupt stop).

Harvey Pekar. The fiction and the non-fiction

Harvey Pekar. The fiction and the non-fiction

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s HBO produced film captures this “ordinary life” with such precision and with such wonderful comic timing it is truly a joy to behold, and is further strengthened by intermittent interviews with Pekar himself (as well as others portrayed in the film) as he records the voice-over and guzzles a provided supply of orange-flavoured soft drink (the far better alternative to water when clearing the throat). Beginning with a sad example of trick or treating from Pekar’s childhood, and thrusting forward to the latter stages of his disastrous second marriage (at which point his doctor informs him that too much yelling has resulted in major damage to his vocal cords and we won’t be able to achieve more than a faint, coarse whisper for over a month) before charting his surprising success stemming from a chance encounter at a garage sale and haunting experience with illness, American Splendor stands as a flawless example of a character study; exquisitely formed with outstandingly accurate performances and a heartfelt script.

Hope Davis as Harvey's wife Joyce Brabner

Hope Davis as Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner

While every inch of dialogue can be savoured for its sincerity or wit, a desperate plea in the film’s 1st act stands as a wonderful moment of foreshadowing:

“I felt more alone that week than any. Sometimes I’d feel a body lying next to me like an amputee feels a phantom limb. All I did was think about Jennie Gerhardt and Alice Quinn and all the decades of people I had known. The more I thought, the more I felt like crying. Life seemed so sweet and so sad, and so hard to let go of in the end. But hey, man, every day is a brand new deal, right? Just keep on working and something’s bound to turn up.”

A story such as this, told on a small scale in a relatable environment, has an ability to touch and influence an audience in a way none others can. Lying awake in our beds at night we can all feel lonely, whether we’re alone or not, and when given time to reflect even the happy moments give way to sadness once its realised they’re passed. Harvey Pekar represents the extreme of this notion, an unlucky, cynical individual feeling a constant downpour of rain upon his weathered head, but at various levels this personality exists within us too, waiting for that brand new deal and brand new day to “turn up.” The truth is not stranger than fiction as some would have you believe, in fact its glaringly obvious and simple if we can only lower the quality of the images we create of ourselves from portraits to stick figures, see them for what they really are and then build on that.

American Splendor is a haven for all those who have felt the sting of monotony, of idealisation, product placement and agenda. Nonchalantly funny, occasionally dramatic and enduringly entertaining, it’s a film of a rare calibre, an independent masterwork that remains required viewing for all cinephiles and narrative junkies.

It’s almost as good as Revenge of the Nerds.

5 pina colada jelly beans out of 5

19 responses to “Classic Review – American Splendor (2003)

    • Well if you ever get the chance to re-watch it, I can tell you its aged exceptionally well. Watched it again last night, making it 3 times in the past fortnight along with Crumb.

    • Not a bad hero to have! I’m actually yet to read the graphic novels, to be honest its something I’m saving until I reach Harvey’s age when he started writing them – I’ve crammed too many books/television series/films so far to properly appreciate a lot of them.

  1. Terrific review! I love this movie. It’s depressing, yet not without hope. Giamatti is a wonderful actor. At first glance he doesn’t look like the kind of person who exudes charisma, but he does. He grounds every film he’s in, and he also has the ability to elevate dubious material. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve seen Lady in the Water three times, just because of his performance. And he has such a moving, unassuming role in Saving Mr. Banks. It’s amazing that an actor of his stature accepted such a minor part; he must have known that he would be overshadowed by the other performers. Of course I don’t know what he’s really like, but onscreen he’s extraordinarily likable (even as Limbo the orangutan in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes).

    • I have to comment and say Barney’s Version has such an amazing performance by the man! Any fan of his should check it out, love to see the man get another big role soon and get some more awards love.

  2. What a beautifully written review! This is one of my favorite films, one that I have seen over and over again, a film that magnificently balances between reality and fiction, and that highlights the great talent of Paul Giamatti. It’s too bad Pulcini and Berman never were able to make a film of this quality again, “The Nanny Diaries” and “Cinema Verite” were disappointing to me… and I hear “Girl Most Likely” is not great…

    • Ah thank-you! Well said, it certainly tells it like it feels in a very unique way.
      I haven’t actually followed their careers to be honest, but agree that there is nothing outstanding about those titles. Their problem may be that they’ll never find a subject as great as Pekar again.

  3. Very nice review. You put the core emotion of the movie right within the review. I loved seeing the actors converse with the real people they are playing. It was a hoot

  4. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Toby Radloff quite a bit (we were trying to get a movie going together). He was a fan of my friend’s band and eventually my band (he appears on the cover of one of my band’s cassettes). He is a great guy, and Judah Friedlander is spot-on with his performance. Excellent review of an excellent movie.

    • That’s awesome Keith, what music genre was your band? It’s fantastic to know he really is a great guy and that Friedlander’s performance is accurate.
      Cheers, Jordan

      • We were “alternative”. Punky. Last I was in Australia, The Dead Milkmen had never played there, but I ran into a guy wearing one of their shirts. That was the original feel of the band. Violent Femmes may be another comparison. By the end, people were saying Zappa, B-52s, and lots of other bands that didn’t really go together.
        We did a song early on called “The Day I Met Toby Radloff” which is why I think he ended up liking us.

  5. Pingback: Classic Review American Splendor (2003) - movieBlogs·

  6. Pingback: American Splendor | ENGL329B Blog - Thomas Campbell·

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