"If you're the kind of person looking for romance or fantasy or escapism, you've got the wrong movie."
One of the most unusually structured and enjoyable films of 2003, "American Splendor" is a documentary - and it's not. The film focuses on Harvey Pekar, a file clerk who went on to start writing an underground comic that gained quite a following. Pekar also occasionally appeared on the David Letterman show, and spent most of his days as a file clerk, with a very normal life and problems of his own.
Harvey met with popular underground comic artist R. Crumb (played well by James Urbaniak) at one point, then decided to create a comic book - collaborating with Crumb ("This is great," says Crumb. "Mind if I take it home and illustrate it?") - that was simply based upon his life - a normal, everyday guy who became sour at the troubles of everyday life. The book became more widely read and the audience grew further, but - by all indications - Harvey was still himself. As the film opens in the 50's, Harvey is a kid who's irritated by poor results from trick-or-treating as himself. Years later, he's still wandering down the same streets.
The film's unusual presentation is remarkably successful, which is impressive, because it could have gone terribly South. Instead of a traditional biopic, we get a mixture of fictional footage (where Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti), interviews with the real Harvey Pekar (whose raspy voice slightly reminded me of one of Adam Sandler's animated characters in "8 Crazy Nights"), animated material, a "play" about Harvey (with Donal Logue playing Harvey) and actual broadcast snippets from the Letterman appearances. The editing smartly blends the different material and the film's overall construction is imaginative, livening up what could easily have been presented as a straightforward downer.
The film focuses on his work as a file clerk, keeping his low-key job to make a living, even when the comic was taking off (Scott Adams shares a similar story on the documentary included in the recent "Dilbert" DVD set). There's also the courtship of Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis - the real life Brabner also appears at times), who turned out to be Harvey's third wife and his collaborator, as well as Harvey's battle with cancer.
Played superbly by Paul Giamatti, Pekar is a compelling loser - a guy who has interesting things to say, but instead remains inspired - I guess you could call it that - by his low-key surroundings. Davis is also wonderful as Brabner, who really seems like Pekar's equal. Mark Suozzo's excellent score - a little folky here, a little bluesy there, also adds a great deal, turning something that could have been depressing into something darkly and dryly funny and adding both sadness and hope to the dramatic scenes.
Surprisingly, "American Splendor" mixes in tones as well as it mixes in different formats - the film's sharp humor is occasionally hilarious, while the dramatic looks at the lonliness and problems of the main characters is effetively moving. Overall, it is an entertaining little character study, showing a fascinating personality that trudges through his life, taking the good with the bad and continuing to go his own way, even after society came knocking.
VIDEO: "American Splendor" is presented by HBO in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall, this is a very fine transfer. Sharpness and detail are very good; the picture seems continually crisp and clean, with nice definition and clarity. Only a few instances of specks on the print used and a couple of touches of edge enhancement distract from what is otherwise a clean image. Colors are understandably low-key, but are portrayed well.
EXTRAS: The DVD offers a commentary from lots of people: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Harvey and Joyce's daughter, Danielle, Harvey's co-worker Toby Radloff, actor Paul Giamatti and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Surprisingly, the commentary does have a few moments of silence here and there, but the majority of the track is an informative discussion of the creation of the film, from the dramatized elements to the production issues encountered during the low-budget shoot. We also hear more about working with the actors to create their real-life counterparts on-screen, working on the locations and the ideas regarding the look of the film.
Aside from the commentary, there are a few other minor supplements. "Road to Splendor" is a short featurette that covers the film's premieres and Pekar's thoughts about the film's success at Sundance and Cannes. There's also an audio clip of a song, as well as the trailer for the film and promos for other HBO offerings. The menus are also worth noting, done in the style of a comic book.
Final Thoughts: An off-beat, oddball gem, "American Splendor" is a terrific film that offers excellent performances and an imaginative structure. HBO's DVD edition provides very good audio/video quality, along with a few solid supplements. Highly recommended.