If I had my way, I would much rather nominate American Splendor for Best Picture over Seabiscuit. It doesn’t have the budget or the big stars or the same grandeur, but it does have a much bigger heart.
I wanted to give this movie a big ol’ hug. I have never seen a film willing to put itself on the line like this, and be willing to take all sorts of criticism, in the hopes of creating something magical.
Here’s the deal: Harvey Pekar was/is a file clerk in a V.A. hospital in Cleveland. He’s a pretty miserable guy. No one seems to understand his particular brand of melancholy/cynicism/rage cocktail. One day he meets the soon-to-be-famous R. Crumb, known in the underground comic circuit for his subversive work. Harvey gets the idea to write a comic book about his life. No gimmicks, no animals, no superheroes; just real life. His comic, American Splendor, soon catches on in the underground, making Harvey a sort of cult-hero, although not providing him enough of a cushion to quit his hated job. Along the way Harvey meets Joyce Brabner, who runs a comic book store in Delaware, and “gets” Harvey. They eventually meet and get married, and she shares his life and adventures, including going on the Letterman show and a few other things I’ll let you be surprised about.
That description doesn’t sound all that interesting. But here is where the directors kick it up a notch. They not only find an actor to play Harvey (more on him in a minute), but they put the actual Harvey in the film as well. And if that weren’t enough, sometimes the animated Harvey (from the comic) makes an appearance. That’s a pretty big risk to take.
But it pays off, in no small part because of Paul Giamatti, who plays Harvey. (It’s hard to describe Giamatti. Most people have seen him in something, but don’t remember. The best I can do is the funny credit-card guy taken hostage in The Negotiator. Or you can just do an IMDB search and see for yourself.) I have long been a huge fan of Giamatti, and thought he was capable of leading-man stuff. The problem is that he’s not traditionally good looking. In this case, that’s a good thing.
I’ve seen four of the five Best Actor performances thus far, and been impressed with all of them (especially Sean Penn in Mystic River and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). However, if I had my way I’d give the Best Actor to Giamatti. Think about the pressure he’s under: the real Harvey Pekar is in the film! If Giamatti doesn’t pull off the acting job you’d be able to tell, because the real guy is right there! But he does. Giamatti gives one of those once-in-a-lifetime career making performances I always knew he was capable of. It’s worth seeing the film just for him.
But the rest of the cast is superb too. Hope Davis plays Harvey’s wife Joyce, and she deserves at least a nomination. Joyce is almost as screwed up as Harvey (in her own way), which may be why they are so perfect for each other. The rest of the cast is stellar as well, including several who are playing real life people that you get to meet.
For the most part American Splendor follows a straight narrative through Harvey’s life. However, at times it breaks character to interview the real Harvey, who’s narrating the film. (One of the great things is how the real Harvey always seems to forget that the movie he’s narrating is about him.)
Another thing they do is to use actual archival footage, like the times Harvey was on Letterman. We see Giamatti heading onto the stage and the real event of Harvey and Dave. It sounds more confusing than it is. Finally, there is sometimes animation, but this won’t be distracting either.
What made me love this film is how they could take such an irascible misanthrope and make him so lovable. American Splendor truly is one of the most heartening and uplifting movies I’ve seen in a long time.
Alas, this film will not be for everyone. I can see people getting turned off by the lack of action, by the mixed media, the breaking down of the fourth wall, and maybe even by Harvey himself. But if you love movies, and you love good well-made movies, and you don’t have to be spoon-fed everything, I promise you that American Splendor is for you.
Suspension of Disbelief Index: 1, for Harvey’s Life, 9 for the animated and dream sequences.
Genre Grade: Biopic: A+. I’ve never seen a film capture a person better.
Pantheon Percentile: 90. Not an epic, but a heart-warmer.