American Splendor (2003) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Plain splendid

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It somehow took quite a long time for me to get to Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “American Splendor”, based on the acclaimed comic book series of the same name which was written by Harvey Pekar. When I came across a short clip from the film while watching the Academy Awards ceremony in 2004 (It was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar at that time, by the way), I became a little curious about the movie, but then it was put away from my mind as I became occupied with many other movies during next 7 years. I eventually bought its region 1 DVD copy in 2011, but it had been left untouched for next 8 years, and I purchased its region 3 DVD copy in the meantime, which had also been left untouched during that period.

When I finally watched and then examined the movie via these two different DVD copies in last week, I was struck by how refreshing it is even though more than 15 years have passed since it came out. As freely weaving fact and fiction into its eclectic mix of feature film, animation, and documentary, the movie gives us a rich, compelling human comedy full of wit, humor, and life, and now it looks more endearing to me as I think more about those humorous episodes revolving around its ordinary hero.

Pekar’s comic book series was mostly based on his own life, and he presented himself as the hero of his comic book series. While that may not look that innovative these days, it was something which had never been done before around the time when he pitched his comic book idea to his close friend Robert Crumb, who willingly helped Pekar as his illustrator. Pekar initially had to publish his comic book series for himself, but it eventually came to gain considerable popularity and acclaim, and he even found himself appearing in NBC TV show “Late Night with David Letterman” several times, though, as reflected by his comic book series as well as the movie, he still remained stuck with his mundane daily life in Cleveland, Ohio.

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The movie dryly observes small ups and downs in the life and career of Pekar, who is played by Paul Giamatti in the film. We see how Pekar’s second marriage is ended with lots of anger and bitterness. We see how his accidental friendship with Crumb (James Urbaniak) leads to the creation and development of his comic book series. We see how the modest initial success of his comic book series leads to his encounter with Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who becomes his third wife shortly after their first date (“I think we should skip the whole courtship thing and just get married”, she says at one point). And we also see how he and Joyce go through his serious medical situation and come to have a surrogate daughter in the meantime.

While he is usually messy and miserable, Pekar is intelligent enough to discern his life from outside with considerable self-awareness, and that is how he is able to sense and then capture the humor and peculiarity behind the plain, monotonous daily life surrounding him and others around him. In his view, even a brief casual conversation between two laborers is funny enough to be a subject for his comic book series, and so are some of his colleagues at a local Veteran’s Administration hospital, where he has worked as a file clerk for many years without much promise or progress. For instance, his best friend/colleague Tony Radloff (Judah Friedlander) is your typical nerd who is also possibly borderline autistic, and one of the most amusing scenes in the movie comes from how quickly he and Joyce become friendly with each other after watching a certain cult film about nerds along with Pekar, who incidentally does not like that film much.

And, of course, Pekar’s chaotic private life is the constant source of inspiration for him, and Berman and Pulcini frequently accentuate this comic aspect via animation. In case of a small key scene unfolded at a local supermarket, its hilarious insertion of animation effectively conveys to us Pekar’s accumulating frustration with his life as well as a certain old lady in front of him, and we certainly get a good laugh in the end when Pekar finally decides to do what he thinks should be done right now. When Joyce is waiting for her first direct encounter with Pekar, the movie has a little naughty fun with several differently illustrated versions of Pekar, and their eventual encounter is punctuated by one of the funniest lines in the film.

americansplendor01.jpgIn addition, Berman and Pulcini often segue into the area of documentary as placing real Pekar right in front of the camera, and that offbeat approach generates a curious synergistic effect between that part and the rest of the film. While we are constantly aware of the difference between real Pekar and how he is depicted in the movie and his comic book series, the movie seamlessly plaits these different elements together for its multi-dimensional narrative, and that perfectly fits to the style and personality of Pekar’s comic book series. Like they did in his comic book series, fact and fiction wryly and cheerfully dance around each other in the film, and that fascinating aspect is exemplified well by a scene showing Pekar’s first guest appearance in the Letterman show. During this scene, the movie simply inserts the archival footage showing real Pekar and Letterman, but this archival footage is somehow organically connected with Giamatti’s performance, and we do not sense much disparity between real Parker and Giamatti in the movie, even when the latter takes the main stage during a subsequent scene depicting that infamous clash between Pekar and Letterman on TV.

The movie was a major high point for not only Berman and Pulcini but also Giamatti. Around that time when he was cast for the movie, Giamatti was a relatively unknown character actor despite his notable supporting roles in several films such as “Man on the Moon” (1999) and “Big Mama’s House” (2000), but the following critical success of this film and Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” (2004) gave a big boost to his acting career, which has been elevated further with a number of stellar performances including an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Cinderella Man” (2005). Always very good at playing flawed ordinary guys, Giamatti effortlessly embodies Pekar’s complex human qualities as balancing his performance well between humor and poignancy, and we come to empathize more with his character’s thoughts and feelings – especially during a simple but sublime scene where his character muses a bit on life after unexpectedly falling into an unconscious state.

americansplendor05.jpgOpposite to Giamatti, Hope Davis, who was also slowly ascending in her acting career around that time, is equally fabulous as a woman who is as colorful and opinionated as her man. Looking quite dowdier than usual, Davis skillfully complements Giamatti during their scenes, and her solid performance is smoothly merged with real Joyce just like Giamatti’s is with real Pekar. While looking a little milder than her husband in comparison, real Joyce does not pull any punch when she talks about her husband, and we can clearly see that they are indeed an ideal soulmate to each other despite their apparent personality differences.

Several other substantial main performers in the film are also effective in their respective roles. While James Urbaniak is suitably deadpan as Crumb, Earl Billings firmly sticks to his gruff attitude as another notable colleague of Pekar, and Judah Friedlander, who would be more familiar to us via his supporting character in TV sitcom series “30 Rock”, is quite impressive in his utterly nerdy appearance. To be frank with you, I initially thought Friedlander’s acting was a little too broad and exaggerated, but then, what do you know, the movie directly showed that real Radloff really looks and talks just like his movie version, and I came to like Radloff a lot more than I expected.

Overall, “American Splendor” is an under-appreciated gem which deserves more attention in my inconsequential opinion, and its memorable slices of life amused and touched me a lot as I came to reflect a bit on my life and myself. Yes, I often feel frustrated with how my life seems to be going nowhere, but I am still trying to keep going on through my brutal honesty and certitude mixed with some quirky sense of humor, and I cherish those sporadic happy moments from my longtime pursuit of good books and movies. As looking back at numerous absurd moments in my life including two morbidly comical suicidal attempts, I certainly agree to what Pekar says in the middle of the film: “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.”

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