Today’s film is based on a comic book, but there isn’t a single super power, cape or mutant to be seen. All you get here are the rantings of an angry man, and along the way you’ll meet the few people who can actually put up with him. Today’s film is American Splendor.
As stated, this film is an adaptation of a series of graphic novels that serve as semi-fictionalised recountings of the life of comic book creator, talk show guest and all around curmudgeon Harvey Pekar. "Who?" I hear you ask - and I'll say Harvey Pekar.
In the 60’s and 70’s, a new movement had come about in the world of comics – one that was brought on by the introduction of The Comics Code. It was a movement that was more based in reality, but was focused more on observations and satire rather than real world people. And people like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar were at the forefront of this.
When Pekar is first introduced to us, he’s working as a records clerk in a Cleveland hospital and hating it, himself, and generally everything around him that he could find to hate on. After being told by a workmate that he should focus his anger into something that he actually loves, he finds himself meeting with R. Crumb who eventually agrees to illustrate Pekar’s various life observations, a move that quickly finds both men receiving acclaim.
From that, the film quickly moves to illustrate various moments in Pekar’s (unwanted) life in the public eye and how his fame affects those around him, primarily his only real friend, Toby Radloff (a real nerd) and his soon-to-be wife, Joyce. The film basically covers Pekar’s life from before the creation of his books, through to the eventual marriage with Joyce. As a story, it’s really no great shakes – crotchety old bastard gains unwanted fame and reluctantly embraces it, but continues being the same jerk he’s always been.
There are two things that actually make this film a memorable experience. The acting, and the presentation. As can be expected, American Splendor is almost a one man show, which means that that one man needs to be up to the task – and Paul Giamatti is one of those men who is up to it, and if I wasn’t a fan before seeing this, I would be after. The only other roles in the film that are worth mentioning are Joyce Brabner-Pekar and Toby Radloff, both played really well by Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander, respectively. Davis worked brilliantly as the rundown and put upon Joyce, and Friedlander turned out to basically be playing a more stylised version of himself as Radloff.
Outside of Giamatti, though, the real star of the film is the presentation itself. As in the style of the source material, American Splendor is presented in multiple styles (and while the books are only pen and ink, they are drawn by enough different artists so as to be thought of as different styles. Crumb himself only illustrated a handful of Pekar’s stories) – straight film, animation, documentary footage, interviews with the actual human players, with frequent merging of the styles. Witness any time that Pekar’s frequent interviews on the Letterman Show are shown: the backstage is filmed footage, whereas anything in front of the curtain was footage from the actual interviews.
I found that the presentation could not be more apt, as I mention above about American Splendor (the books) being bought to life through many hands; using many styles to show a filmed version could not have worked better. Hell, even from the start, in which the actual Harvey Pekar comes out and tells the audience that what they are about to see is a load of crap (in his own inimitable style), and that basically pulls the audience into a living, breathing graphic novel.
As an overall film, much like the man who is its focus, it does take a little bit to warm up to. But once you get where it is coming from, you get a surprisingly sweet little story about a man who is just trying to find his place in a world that hasn’t really given him anything.