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Monday, February 23, 2004  

There was a fairly decent group of good movies this year, but only four I actually considered as candidates for the Grand Jeffy. The first candidate arrived in the fall, when I saw American Splendor, the most original American film I've seen since Memento. Here's a review that originally appeared at Open Source Politics.

American Splendor
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
101 minutes

Harvey Pekar is an choleric everyman who has spent his life shambling the gray and grim streets of Cleveland, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the unbearable heaviness of being a clerk. He is overweight, depressive, unfulfilled--in short, your average working stiff.

Or is he?

Pekar is the author of a comic book series called "American Splendor," which features the character of Harvey Pekar. In the film American Splendor by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar is both the author and the character and is portrayed in all his hunched, grumbling glory by Paul Giamatti.

In both the comic books and film, Pekar is morose, self-absorbed, unkempt, unpalatable…and very funny. Nobody should be blamed for thinking they've got this guy figured out by now. But intruding on the film's narrative is the narrator himself, the real Pekar, who is mild, affable, and engaging.

Within a few minutes, you have a dawning realization that Giamatti is playing a fictitious doppelganger, the character from a comic book. Or is the real Pekar, whom we see chatting with the filmmakers, actually the doppelganger--with Giamatti, the actor, representing accurately what the real person cannot?

The sense of blurred lines worsens when, half way through the movie, the narrative includes Pekar's famous run on Letterman. As Hope Davis, playing his wife Joyce, watches from the green room, the directors show real footage of the real Harvey Pekar. But lest you think it's the real Harvey, the fake Joyce gets irritated that he's playing the Pekar "character." And round and round it goes, who the "real" Pekar is nobody knows.

But while the directors chose to knit together documentary and biopic, their point isn't an intellectual "nature of truth" thesis. They're much more interested in exploring the extraordinary life of this ordinary guy. What plays out is something like a Woody Allen movie--if Woody made films about working class guys in Cleveland. Giamatti plays the character with a constant scowl, something like Woody's constant nervousness. He works in a monochromatic file room, lives in a dingy apartment, and shuffles along gray streets. Somehow, when set against the scowl, this saturation of grimness starts to seem hysterically funny.

James Urbaniak plays Robert Crumb, the famous alt-comic hero who illustrated the first "American Splendor" comic book. Many of the people who see this film will have seen Terry Zwigoff's Crumb; they'll find Urbaniak's Crumb substantially different from Zwigoff's. Here he's a cool, distant, strangely powerful figure. After the film's turning point, where Pekar's grocery-store epiphany about old Jewish women leads to his first "American Splendor" script, we find him sitting nervously awaiting Crumb's assessment. Crumb reads the panels, illustrated provisionally by stick figures, while Pekar writhes. Finally he issues judgment: "This is really good. Can I illustrate it?"

Hope Davis plays Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner. She's identifiable, but disappears into the role. When the real Joyce appears with the real Harvey, one marvels at how fully Davis has mastered her wide-eyed flatness. Another character named Toby Radloff seems like a fake until we see the real Toby; then we realize Judah Friedlander is channeling him. It's uncanny. (The one character who is miscast is the guy who plays David Letterman--but who cares? We know Dave.)

But the movie is about Harvey, and we never leave his orbit. The narrative moves along following something like a plot, but this is incidental. It's not a film in which we expect anything particularly good to happen; we're really hoping nothing bad does. What we're really interested in, though, is how Harvey will handle whatever does happen. Enjoy this sense of momentary exploration--that's the joy of this movie.

posted by Jeff | 5:26 PM |
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