Who’da thought that they’d be making movies based on underground comics? Following the critical success of movies like Ghost World (based on a “graphic novel”) and Crumb (a documentary about a freaky indie comic book artist), we now have the equally quirky American Splendor. Not quite a documentary, and not quite a drama, and not quite an animated movie, this clever film blends multiple genres of film together to create something quite unique.
Harvey Pekar is a bitter file clerk at a VA Hospital in Cleveland, the heart of all that I envision to be depressing and ordinary about America (don’t write me! I’m sure Cleveland is a very nice place!). As played by Paul Giamatti, Harvey is a perpetually scowling, balding, potbellied, slouching sourpuss that collects records that line crowded sagging shelves in his sty of a house. He has a nerdy best friend named Toby (Judah Friedlander) who’s “borderline autistic,” and he is jealous of the success of his comic book artist friend Robert Crumb (the goofy, but straight-faced James Urbaniak).
One day while grousing in line behind a slow old lady in a grocery store, he suddenly thinks to himself, “Why not make my OWN comic?” He goes home, draws hilariously poor stick figures, but starts writing and writing and writing stories from his everyday life. Voila! His friend Crumb offers to illustrate it, and the cult comic American Splendor is born.
The thing is, Harvey’s life IS dull and pedestrian, and frankly, a bit depressing. So what the filmmakers do to spice things up a bit is to integrate interviews with the real Harvey Pekar, clips from his 1980s guest appearances on David Letterman, and even animated sequences of the comic Harvey (drawn by different artists) muttering across the screen. This, I’ll admit, is pretty cool.
The acting in the drama segments is first rate, by Paul Giamatti as Harvey, as well as by Hope Davis as his equally grumbling wife Joyce. But I have to admit, I looked forward to every time Judah Friedlander’s Toby was on screen. His Toby is a freaky child-man, who talks really slowly with firm and precise pronunciation. My favorite part of the film shows the real-life Toby talking to the real Harvey about the glories of Jelly Belly candies. The camera pans back to reveal Giamatti and Friedlander sitting in the background cracking up at their real-life counterparts. Weird, strange, and very funny.
American Splendor is a unique and unusual film, about a pretty average guy. Harvey Pekar is the grouch you see at the store, or walking down the street. He’s not a superhero, or a crime fighter, and that is kind of refreshing to see in the movies for a change. He may be a curmudgeon, but one of those that kind of grows on you over time.