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REVIEW: American Splendor

American: adj. of or pertaining to the United States of America
splendor: n. great fame or glory

Real Joyce, real Harvey.

There are so many points I could make with this review. It’s hard to dedicate myself to just one. There’s room for the argument of comics as a medium that doesn’t need to be restricted to portraying the fantastic. And, by extension, how animation could be used to portray the mundane as effectively and emotionally as live-action film. There’s the argument of how America is really a great nation, it just needs to pull its head out of its rear-end and realize what great it has. There’s the argument for the artist and how badly we treat them in North American society. American Splendor is one of those movies that says a lot by not saying anything, really. What’s it about? Well, that’s kinda complex.

Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a sub-average dude from Cleveland, Ohio–what I hear is known as the armpit of America. Discouragingly, when I first watched this film with Ailish earlier this week, we both thought it was shot in Hamilton. So Cleveland looks pretty awesome. Harvey collects old records, and we’re introduced to him at the doctor’s. He’s busy finding out that his voice will be gone for a few months. He gets home and his second wife is leaving him, but he can’t beg her to stay. Cos he sounds like a dog’s squeaky toy. Without giving anything away, this is basically the run of Harvey’s life, as narrated by the real Harvey Pekar. Yeah, he’s real. See, this is an adaptation of the comic book series American Splendor, written by Harvey Pekar about his own life, making this at least 33% documentary and interviews. It’s definitely post-modern, but instead of being weird for the sake of being weird, it’s weird to tell this story.

Harvey gets the idea to write a comic while he’s stuck behind an old Jewish lady in line at the grocery store. His friend and fellow record collector Bob Crumb is visiting from San Francisco, where’s making some good progress as a comics artist. Looking over Harvey’s rough stick figure sketches of his daily frustrations in a restaurant, he says that they’re actually pretty good. Asking to illustrate them, he shocks Harvey so bad that he gets his voice back. He loses it often, mostly by angrily ranting about how much his life sucks. By the time issue eight of Splendor has been released, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) finds her own store in Delaware sells out of the comic before she could read it. She calls Harvey to see about getting a copy. Months later, she’s in Cleveland, and that night, decides to marry him.

And that’s what a lot of American Splendor is. The title is definitely meant as ironic–while almost everything in Harvey’s life is 100% American, there is nothing in it that can be described as splendorous. Harvey’s a depressed wreck in a dead end job. His closest friends are a paranoid music snob (Earl Billings as Mr. Boats), a borderline autistic twenty-eight year old who lives with his grandmother (Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff) and his wife. No part of Harvey Pekar’s life is not a sad sack of issues and neuroses and it’s not like Pekar himself is gifted with a can-do, never-say-die attitude. His life stinks, he knows it and he makes no apologies for it. And that’s where the winning charm of American Splendor is seated.

All throughout this movie, you see Cleveland as it really is. Not because it’s some big expose on how bad the city is–because it was shot on location in the actual places that inspired Harvey. The city doesn’t apologize for being small or run down; it is what it is and that’s all it wants to be. There’s a moment just after Joyce’s introduction where Harvey and Toby are talking about Revenge of the Nerds. Toby, being the guy he is, gives away the ending in saying why he enjoyed it. He can also tell you the differences between every type of Jelly Belly. Cos that’s just who he is. Real life is almost never portrayed as something worth portraying on film. Almost all stories have to be fictionalized to a great extent just to be filmed. Harvey’s story is left nearly as real as it was on the page. Harvey plays himself in all file footage from Letterman and narrates the film in his own charming rasp while drinking orange soda.

Even when Harvey gets cancer, finding the lump the night Joyce is away for the first time in their marriage, it isn’t handled as a gigantic tragedy worth an act two crisis and confrontation. It’s life, and it’s how life progresses. Harvey says that he doesn’t think he’s strong enough to get through having cancer. Joyce tells him that he’s going to make it into a comic book, and get through it that way. Paul Giamatti is one of the finest screen actors I’ve ever seen, and his Pekar is as surly and depressed as the real deal, which brings this quiet moment home in a way no “acting” could. Hope Davis likely doesn’t get mentioned on the same scales as Giamatti. If fame were measured by talent, she would. Yet the real revelatory performance in here is Judah Friedlander. You know, the unshaven lout in the trucker cap from 30 Rock? He’s borderline-autistic Toby. And he’s a damn chameleon.

The title of American Splendor is certainly meant to be ironic, but after watching this movie, I wonder if it is. America isn’t a great nation for its leading the world in healthcare (funny joke) or in politics (joke, but not funny because it’s kinda true). America doesn’t shine in being the world’s leader in freedom. It shines in its quiet, everyday citizens. The people who walk home from the bakery, the people who live through cancer, the people who tell Letterman that they think they’re worthy of some respect. Splendor can indeed change from place to place and person to person, but these quiet moments between these regular people who live their lives just to exist–that is where America shines brightest. FOUR STARS

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