Perennial pessimist and hopeless grouch Harvey Pekar is a listless grumbler who, despite his limited skills in drawing, became the notorious writer of American Splendor, a cult series of satirical autobiographical graphic novels that portrayed the discreet charm of his (or the) everyday life of a (self-proclaimed) loser and is often quoted as a predecessor of reality television.
Pekar even became somewhat of a television personality thanks to his memorable appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. He enjoyed a fair share of notoriety and success in his life. Despite this, he also kept up his incurably grouchy ways, as well as his job as an archivist in the hospital of his hometown, the gray and dull Cleveland, Ohio, which somewhat reflects the essence of Pekar’s spirit in the movie.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who also wrote the movie, distance themselves from the cliché riddled biopic formula, opting instead to play with said formula and the cinematic form in general by blending reality and fiction in surprising ways. In the former, Pekar is played by Giamatti in arguably his best performance to date; an ultimate embodiment of everyday tragi-comedy. The fiction is intercut with documentary footage of Pekar himself, philosophizing, commenting on his life and the film itself (often negatively), and recording narration for the film. This blend of fantasy and fiction intensifies when we consider that Pekar is also represented as a character of his own autobiographical novels, animated versions of the character, archive footage, and, in a short sequence, as a character in a play based on his graphic novels.
Despite the richness of their endeavour, Berman and Pulcini never lose track of the complexity of their vision: the fictional side of the film, which nonetheless remains the most important one, is quite linear. Furthermore, the film is driven by the objective not only to represent the essence of Pekar’s existence and creativity, but as a tribute to Pekar and, through him, a tribute to the everyday man (it is no coincidence that the tagline of the film, as shown on the poster, is the reassuring statement that “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”).
Rather than elevate the central underground legend to the level of beatitude, American Splendor is to keep him firmly planted just above sea level with the risk of sinking under the weight of his own insecurities. Yet, he somehow manages to find the strength to carry on, especially when he meets and almost immediately marries Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). The two make an ideal charming couple. There is no explicit romanticism between them, which is why they so genuinely represent the unspoken truth of the reality of amorous entanglements. Brabner, like Pekar, has her fair share of difficult eccentricities. Yet, they are obviously made for each other; their unorthodox romance is the true message of the movie, but it is only thanks to Davis and Giamatti’s abilities that this aspect, much like the characters they play, never appear to be caricatural. Though the film is driven by an irresistible and
Though American Splendor is driven by an irresistible and colourful sense of humour, as well as a lively pace, it also tackles some more delicate themes: loneliness and illness, for instance, are among the most notable one. Pekar and Brabner are unable to have a child together; the way they handle this throughout the film is very interesting. In one of its most dramatic sequences, Pekar discovers he has cancer. His struggle to overcome it is never overplayed, and yet central to the movie, as the illness will lead him to the writing and publication of the award winning graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1995), co-written with his wife and illustrated by Frank Stack. – ★★★★
AMERICAN SPLENDOR | 2017, USA | Biopic | Directed by – Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini / Produced by – Ted Hope, Christine Kunewa Walker, Declan Baldwin / Written by – Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini / Music by – Mark Suozzo / Cinematography – Terry Stacey / Edited by – Robert Pulcini / Starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander | Running time: 101 mins.