Directed by Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini. USA. 2003.

Reviewed by Nicola Dewe and Howard Schumann


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American Splendor begins with the story of a down at heal guy whose life seems to be going nowhere. He’s in a dead-end job as a filling clerk at the local hospital, his apartment is a sty and his second wife is leaving him for a better life elsewhere. It’s no surprise that things are starting to get him down. Whilst he’s a pessimistic kind of guy with no great expectations of life, he can’t seem to shake the sense of longing for something more. Within him lurks the desire within us all to leave some sort of lasting mark upon the world. This is the true story of the life of Harvey Pekar, an ordinary guy from Cleveland, Ohio who finds a way to create something poignant and poetic out of the dross and drudgery of his existence and how his life changes (or doesn’t) as a result.

Through his acquaintance with successful comic book artist Robert Crumb, Harvey develops the idea to pen his own comic strip that document the mundane minutiae of everyday American life – the agony of choosing the right supermarket queue to join and the ramblings and observations of his offbeat friends and colleagues. Appreciation for Harvey’s musings becomes widespread and he soon starts to develop his own fan base. Most significantly for him is fellow oddball Joyce Brabner, a comic book store owner in Delaware, whose store sells out of copies of the comic and in desperation to obtain one for herself, contacts Harvey directly. Harvey may have newfound wealth and success but as always he’s feeling pretty dissatisfied and increasingly lonely to boot. So once he’s managed to convince Joyce to come to Cleveland he greets her at the station, in his brilliantly dogmatic fashion, with the announcement that before things go any further she should know that he’s had a vasectomy. Joyce is unperturbed by Harvey’s frankness and suggests later that same night that they should get married. 

The runaway success of his work results in Harvey occupying a regular guest spot on the David Letterman show and even his friends and colleagues wind up with television cameos. The great thing about Harvey is that despite his apparent success he never loses his gloomy attitude and for me this is the real joy of the tale. He winds up disgracing himself on Letterman by ranting live on air about the pointless triviality of the show and subsequently is never invited back. His gift is capturing the humdrum side of life and he never loses his perception for it, just as he continues to work as a filing clerk till the day he retires. Harvey knows that despite the famous self-help book that tells you to do otherwise– ‘sweating the small stuff’ is what life is all about. Therein lies both the agony and ecstasy of everyday existence.

The film itself is shot on several levels. With actors playing the parts of Harvey and his cohorts including beautifully empathetic performances from Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as Joyce. The real individuals also appear as themselves on the set of the film and comment on and narrate the action. There is actual footage of Pekar’s appearance on the Letterman show and some of the story is portrayed through comic strip sketches. American Splendor is a cleverly told, wonderfully humane story about the exquisite charm within the tedium of daily life.

Nicola Dewe

When I think about comic books, which admittedly is not too often, I think only of the superheroes of my youth: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, and The Flash. Yes there was the occasional Archie thrown in, but comic books always seemed to be about heroic adventures that I could use to escape from the drudgery of schoolwork. The American Splendor comic books, however, ushered in a new era that focused on the events of day to day life, attempting to extract meaning from "sweating the small stuff". American Splendor, by Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini, chronicles the life of underground comic-strip writer Harvey Pekar in a delightfully innovative film that came away with the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It is part documentary and part drama and alternates between showing the real Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner and the fictional couple played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. It also shows cartoon versions of the characters in animated sequences interacting with the flesh and blood heroes. 

The real Harvey, who gave his blessing to the film, was a file clerk in a Cleveland Hospital and, in spite of the fame that resulted from the exposure on David Letterman and the success of the comic books, was never able to quit his job until his recent retirement. Pekar, as brilliantly played by Giamatti, is the essential anti-hero, the curmudgeon who sees life in terms of burden rather than possibility and doesn't hesitate to spread his negative attitude toward anyone in close proximity. The film navigates between the levels of the real and the dramatized so skillfully that you hardly notice, especially effective in the sequences when Harvey appears on the David Letterman show in the 80s. One scene that is particularly seamless when Giamatti's Harvey leaves the green room, a nearby monitor displays a clip of the real Harvey sitting down to talk to Dave. 

After establishing a friendship with fellow depressive, R. Crumb (James Urbaniak), Pekar, a college dropout with a personality as ingratiating as moldy turnips, begins writing stories for illustrators to turn into comic books. Pekar's comics have titles such as 'An Argument At Work' and 'Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines' and are based on his everyday experiences at work and at home. The comics demand that he pay close attention to each moment and he has a good deal of material readily available to him with friend and co-worker Toby Ratliff (Judah Friedlander), a proud nerd who drives from Cleveland to Toledo just to see Revenge of the Nerds

As the American Splendor comic books become more widely known and distributed, Harvey meets Joyce, a worker in a Delaware comic shop and the two lonely people begin to find solace together. When Harvey has to battle cancer, he does so with courage and turns his experiences into a comic book called 'Our Cancer Year'. For the Pekars, life takes on new meaning when they adopt a young girl who has become attached to Joyce. While I enjoyed American Splendor, ultimately, Harvey's constant complaining and victim-like stance on life makes him difficult to relate to and ultimately appreciate. "I'm kinda like a class-clown type of guy ... with all these shticks that I do," Pekar says. While the shticks are amusing and Pekar is refreshingly honest, it is not enough to justify elevating his "outsider act" to the level of Socrates. 

Howard Schumann
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