When I first saw Ghost World, another indie darling based on a comic book, I loved it so much. I told everyone I knew to see it. One friend of mine I expected to love Ghost World just as much as did, but she was just lukewarm on it. She said, "The filmmaking was good, but I just didn't like those girls. They were mean and unsympathetic, and I just didn't like watching characters who were only good at hating other people."
I still don't agree with her, but after watching American Splendor I understand what she means. American Splendor is an outstanding piece of filmmaking. As entertainment, though, it's only so-so. The characters are unlikable and the story is kind of a bummer. It reminded me of the books I had to read in high school. I could respect why they were worth my time to read, but I didn't enjoy them very much.
Originally produced for HBO, and directed by a pair of documentarians, American Splendor is part movie, part "behind-the-music." Like other comic-book-to-big-screen films, American Splendor uses mixed-media to remind the audience of its comic book roots. The technique works well and serves to support the story (ala Dangerous Life of Altar Boys) rather than cause a distraction (ala The Hulk). The other good thing is, you don't have to know anything about the Cult of Crumb or even comic books to understand and appreciate this film.
Our story begins in 1975 in Cleveland. The real Harvey Pekar (pee-car) narrates because the 1975 Pekar has lost his voice. Pekar is stuck in a dead-end job as a file clerk and his second wife has just left him. He is an angst-ridden, mopey guy living in a grey, depressing city in a country that's about to be taken over by Yuppies.
Lucky for Pekar, he meets and befriends one Robert Crumb. They have many common interests including: comics, record collecting, and ending sentences in "...Man." It is this friendship, and Pekar's pessimistic, counter-cultural view of the world that will eventually become the underground comic American Splendor.
Pekar only writes the comic, he doesn't draw; and since he writes about himself, his image is subject to variations by the artist. In one particularly excellent scene, Pekar's date steps off the train to meet him and is met with three different animated versions of Pekar. But this brings up an interesting question: which Pekar are we seeing in the film?
The real Pekar makes a number of appearances: both in documentary-style interviews and in subtle editing moves. Actor Paul Giamatti's Pekar seems spot-on until the film gets to Pekar's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Up until this point, Pekar is portrayed as loveable grump both in his real-life interviews and by actor Giamatti. But when the archival footage from Letterman is shown, there appears a third Pekar: wholly unlikable and bizarre. This is the Pekar that time and the well-penned word have not glossed over. I felt a little bit betrayed as a viewer: as though the filmmakers had pulled the wool over my eyes and fooled me into liking a character who was, in actuality, a total jerk.
After the Letterman footage I completely lost sympathy for the character. Pekar's hypochondriac wife isn't particularly likeable either, and all would have ended badly if the film wasn't so well-crafted.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of re-creating Pekar's world. Their limited use of locations and lack of sunlight really gives the audience a feel for Pekar's dark, isolated, mindset. Paul Giamatti is fantastic as Pekar, he truly seems to embody the character and on the chance this will rack your mind as much as it did mine, I'll just remind you where you've seen him before: Giamatti was Bob Zmuda/ Tony Clifton in Man on the Moon, and he was also the documentary filmmaker in the "non-fiction" section of Storytelling.
More bio-pics should be made like American Splendor. The blending of real-life interviews with archival footage and traditional filmmaking is fantastic. For example: Toby Radloff is both a character in Pekar's comic and, one of Pekar's real-life co-workers. His presence in the film provides some excellent comic relief; but the humor goes to a whole other level when the real Toby Radloff appears for an interview and is exactly like his on-screen portrayal. In addition, the filmmakers add a nice cinematic element to the documentary footage by having Pekar and Radloff interviewed while their corresponding actors wait in the background.
American Splendor is worth seeing like Great Expectations is worth reading. The craft is excellent and supports the dark mood and somewhat unlikable characters. I am recommending this film as a rental not because it is unworthy of a theatrical recommendation, but because the supplemental materials of a DVD will no doubt provide even more I insight into the real Harvey Pekar.
-Megan A. Denny