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American Splendor

Posted by martinteller on January 29, 2013

I’ve never read Harvey Pekar’s autobiographic comic, “American Splendor.”  I was aware of it, however.  Throughout college I was into Robert Crumb (and even, embarrassingly, borrowed the name of one of his characters, “Mr. Natural”, for my college radio show… the kind of thing an 18-year-old thinks is hip and clever) and after college was into alternative comics like “Hate” and “Eightball” for a few years.  But for whatever reason, I never picked up one of Pekar’s books.  I had a vague notion of its content — the musings of a sad-sack guy, probably with some misanthropic observations but mostly slice-of-life kinda stuff.  Based on that, and what I’d heard about this movie, I had an idea of what I was in for.

And while it was pretty much exactly what I expected, I still quite enjoyed it.  The various idiosyncrasies in the film’s construction — narration by Pekar himself, appearances by his wife and friend, integration of comic and film — are not surprising, but very suitable to the material and executed nicely.  You don’t feel like you’re being bashed over the head with how meta all this is, it just feels like… how else would you tell it?  A straight documentary wouldn’t capture the idea of Pekar’s life framed by his art, nor would a straight biopic.

In the limits of a feature film, we see primarily a highlight reel of Pekar’s life and artistic career.  The nearly obsessive passion for comics and old records.  Meeting Crumb, which would result in the creation of his own comic.  Rising to a certain level of underground fame.  The start of his relationship with his wife and eventual collaborator, Joyce Brabner.  A battle with cancer.  In this way, the film does follow something of a biopic formula, but includes enough day-to-day detail and observation that it doesn’t come off as formulaic.

Most of all, the movie has a refreshing honesty to it.  Not that one would expect sensationalism or gloss from an artist of Pekar’s ilk, but it’s appreciated anyway.  There are probably darker elements to Pekar’s personality that could have been explored more, but Giamatti’s schlubby performance is self-deprecating enough.  I was a bit less impressed with Hope Davis, who can’t quite commit to the part.  Judah Friedlander plays Harvey’s nerdy pal Toby.  At first it feels like an absurd and grating caricature.  Then we meet the real Toby and see that, yeah, he’s pretty much like that.  But then a little later, well, it still feels kinda absurd and grating.

Minor casting gripes aside, I was very engaged and entertained.  Harvey’s mundane life isn’t fascinating in and of itself, it’s fascinating in how he transformed it into a medium for expression.  There are wonderfully funny moments in the film, and a few beautifully touching ones as well.  I may even read those comics some day.  Rating: Very Good (84)

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