WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I wouldn't say American Splendor is the most likable film around, but then neither is Harvey Pekar himself. Pekar is the subject of this strange hybrid of genres—documentary, fictionalized biography, straight-out sad-sack drama, animated film—and he infuses the film with an angry, depressed, sarcastic edge that's impossible to look away from. A line from this DVD's commentary, spoken by Harvey's wife Joyce Brabner, encapsulates the atmosphere of American Splendor—"deadpan, with an emphasis on the dead."
American Splendor is a triumph of cross-genre storytelling, and it's no wonder the film is gathering accolades around the globe for its screenplay. It's a sympathetic biopic about a sullen jerk. Pekar is a mean-spirited, paranoid, small little man—and I love the surly, snarling bastard—but he's still not the greatest subject for filmmakers to work with. Thankfully, the sheer ingenuity of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's directorial approach produces a kind of miracle: It puts the film's subject, Harvey Pekar, through something of a personality change, surrounding him with filmmaking magic and giving him a sparkling soul, despite the hate and resentment emanating from his every pore.
We meet Harvey Pekar in several incarnations. There's the real guy, straight off the streets of Cleveland, narrating his own story with a raspy, annoyed whine and appearing in behind-the-scenes clips to sip orange soda. Then there's the dramatized version, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, and—marvelously—the two interact throughout the film. There are also the various animated incarnations of Pekar, echoing the fact that multiple comic artists have drawn Pekar on the pages of his underground comic book American Splendor. (As the film will show you, Pekar is a celebrated writer of everyman comics, but he surely isn't an artist, producing stick-figure art that will be later redone by accomplished artists.) Represented by these multiple personalities, Pekar stumbles through his own story, angrily finding unlikely success despite himself.
A huge part of that success is thanks to Robert Crumb, who was the first to find value in Pekar's scribblings and help introduce his unique pathology to the world. It wouldn't be long before Pekar was showing up on the David Letterman show and attaining a degree of fame. And that's essentially the story of American Splendor—we experience Pekar's rise to semistardom, and we meet his odd assortment of friends and family. We see how he met his wife Joyce (portrayed by Hope Davis), and when we meet the real Joyce in behind-the-scenes snippets, we understand the full brilliance of Davis's portrayal. We meet Harvey's bizarre coworkers at the Veteran's Hospital—for example, both the real-life Toby Radloff (self-titled "genuine nerd" and oh boy is he ever) and the actor portraying him (Judah Friedlander). Both are hilarious.
The story gets surprisingly personal toward the end, covering Pekar's battle with testicular cancer, but it never lets go of its dark heart, never descends into sap. Pekar is Pekar throughout American Splendor, always true to himself—true to his dissatisfied nastiness—and there's a purity in that unlike anything else I saw in film in 2003. This film might not press your pleasure buttons like your typical comedy, but you've probably never seen anything like it before. And that makes it very much worth your time.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
HBO Films presents American Splendor in a pretty good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Although the level of detail is above average, contrast seems cranked a little high, introducing a bit too much grain into the image. My memory of the film in theaters is that it was quite grainy—as well as drab and brown, like Cleveland itself—so this image seems accurate. It's not a very pretty image, but it's what the directors and cinematographer were going for, apparently. Shadow detail is merely okay, and colors are accurate.
The biggest offense is the amount of edge enhancement, which is pretty severe. I also noticed a few instances of digital artifacting, probably because of that cranked contrast. In many scenes, mosquito noise is visible, particularly in the opening Halloween segment, but it's throughout.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is a mostly front-and-center affair. Dialog comes across clear and clean, thankfully. You'll notice activity in the surrounds only rarely, mostly for ambience. There's just not much else to say about this effort, because it's not asking very much.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The primary supplement is an often-hilarious Audio Commentary from directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and their daughter, Danielle Batone; and actors Paul Giamatti, Toby Radloff, and Judah Friedlander. I got a real kick out of this track—at least, when people were talking. (There are quite a few lengths of silence, surprisingly.) Mostly filled with lazy conversation and easy humor, the track wins us over with anecdotes and in-jokes. I especially enjoyed Toby's opinion (shared by me) that In-n-Out Burger is the best burger around. Most of the discussion focuses on Pekar's real life versus the fictional portrayal onscreen—that is, which moments had really happened, which were embellished, and which were invention-but-true-to-his-spirit. All in all, it's a great track that's a natural extension of the film.
Next is the 5-minute Road to Splendor, a featurette that follows Harvey Pekar from the Sundance Film Festival to the film's New York premiere. It's a pretty fun glimpse at the film's reception, and it even covers Cannes. It's cool to see the real people involved with the film.
You also get the song "American Splendor" by Eytan Mirsky over a still shot of Pekar.
Wrapping things up on the digital realm, the disc offers an HBO Films trailer and the Trailer for American Splendor. There's not much more here, except for a whole bunch of easter eggs. They're pretty easy to find, and they consist mostly of short interview segments.
There's also a comic-book insert called Harvey Pekar's "My Movie Year" that covers some biography surrounding the making of American Splendor.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
American Splendor is a true original—an endlessly entertaining and unique look at an angry bastard. Its DVD presentation is above average, offering good image and sound quality and better supplements.