American Splendor
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E
american splendor This astonishing film bio cleverly and joyfully blurs the lines of real life with various dramatised versions of it, all while taking a satirical swipe at the American dream. It's about cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who with his wife Joyce Brabner has documented his life as a working stiff in Cleveland with wry observational humour and a kind of ironic superhero vibe. In the film, we see several incarnations of Harvey--as a kid in the 1950s, as a man from the '60s to the '90s (played by Giamatti), as himself in ingenious narrative clips and "off-screen" moments, and as cartoon versions of himself. All of this combines to paint a picture of an everyday hero who triumphs over the crises of work, health, romance and conscience.

This is a fantastic story that cuts right through our idealistic view (supplied by TV and movies) of what life should be as opposed to what it really is. It addresses issues of fame, wealth and love in ways we rarely see on screen--realistic, hopeful, scary! The film is stunningly well written, directed and edited, inventively using comic book graphics and never getting caught up in irrelevant gimmicks or tired script structures. It bracingly tells things as they are, and merges the actors with the people they're playing in ways that are revelatory and absolutely hilarious.

Yes, the film keeps us laughing from start to finish, helped by the fact that Pekar and Brabner are almost criminally witty--brilliantly and insightfully played by Giamatti and Davis. The film is also filled out with wonderfully eccentric side characters, such as Harvey's colleague Radloff (played by Friedlander) and underground cartoonish granddad Robert Crumb (Urbaniak), as well as witty cameos from the likes of Logue and Shannon (playing Harvey and Joyce on stage) and extensive clips from Harvey's appearances on David Letterman's chat show. The most striking sequence is one in which Giamatti strolls through street scenes and comic book frames pondering Harvey's existence while talking about the other Harvey Pekars who've lived in Cleveland. Astonishing. And with a point too! Yet while the film has a lot to say, it's also a remarkable film biography of a simple curmudgeon who continues to use his own real life as art--on the page, on television, on the stage and now on the big screen.

cert 15 themes, language 26.Aug.03

dir-scr Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
with Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff, Madylin Sweeten, Danielle Batone, Earl Billings, James McCaffrey, Maggie Moore, Eli Ganias, Donal Logue, Molly Shannon, David Letterman
release US 15.Aug.03; UK 2.Jan.04
03/US 1h40

Made for each other: Giamatti and Davis (above); the real and animated Harvey (below).
from off the streets of cleveland...
See also: CAST Q&A

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R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... american splendor diana, edmonton alberta canada: 4.5/5 "I think this movie was grreat! How interesting and extraordinary his life was! I love the people playing him and his wife and his friend, you couldn't have picked better likenesses and these people made me fall in love with them. How wonderful they kept the girl for their own to raise, and seeing how he took his life and put it on paper is absolutely amazing. I would do anything just to say hi to him and his wife and to say thank you for his comics. I hope he made enough money from this movie to retire the way he wanted, because to me, he should. Give the movie a chance and watch it, it keeps you watching if you just give it a chance." (16.Nov.05)
Q   &   A   W I T H   T H E   C A S T
from off the streets of cleveland... Rich Cline attended a brief Q&A session with the cast of American Splendor: Paul Giamatti (who seemed exhausted after partying at Edinburgh Film Fest the previous weekend); Harvey Pekar (who couldn't be much more laid back, matter-of-fact and effortlessly funny); Joyce Brabner (who's hilarious--dry and cynical and fiercely intelligent); and their teen 'daughter' Danielle Batone.

On playing a real person in a movie...
Most of the preparation for making the film was reading the comic books and watching old tapes of Harvey. We only met a day or two before filming.
Harvey: And he was wonderful!
giamatti and pekar Paul: His wife gave me the most insight into his character.
Joyce: They have a lot in common. I found out a lot talking to Paul's wife. For example, he's a hoarder too.

On why he put his life into a comic book...
I started telling my story in comics because it gave me the opportunity to talk about life in general. The name American Splendor is an ironic title. No one would think my life is all that splendid.
Joyce: We try to plot the character. We'd love to have the Large Inheritance! But it's not going to happen. We'd have loved to have edited out the medical drama part, but that did happen.
Harvey: We've been married 20 years. I'll write about other people as they turn up, and I'll keep writing until I get more senile. I've always found interesting people. There's always something to write about.

On how this has affected Danielle...
You'd think you'd gain friends by being written about in a comic book and made into a movie, but I've lost a lot. The kids at school started treating me differently. But I guess I've gained as many friends as I've lost. Now I'm trying to write too, mostly on the website right

brabner and pekar On their trip to the UK...
If there's any gold in our trip to this country I'm sure it will be mined.
Harvey: Right now I'm writing about the people we've met working on this movie. We're working on a project called Our Movie Year about this film, but we need to decide when that year starts and when it ends. And as long as I write, Toby consistently outshines me!
Joyce: Toby already has several movies under his belt, titles like Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd. He's in every scene and does all his own stunts. These are the kinds of movies made by people who work for the Weather Channel and borrow the equipment on the weekends. Toby is certainly not a wacko; he's a high functioning sharp guy who happens to be autistic.   back to the top--London, 26.Aug.03

2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall