American Splendor 2003
Before I decided to watch this film I didn’t really know much about it. I knew it starred Paul Giamatti playing a bit of an average schlub, and that it was based on an indie comic book. But aside from that I knew nothing else. Watching the film I found it to be completely fascinating and unique. To try and explain it, it’s an adaptation of a mostly autobiographical comic book that combines dramatizations with actors as well as brief interviews with the actual author and some animated flourishes. I had never really heard the name Harvey Pekar before watching this even though I was vaguely aware of the name American Splendor. I found that while watching the film I was completely drawn to this very average and somewhat depressed guy and his story of his minor success. It was funny, it was touching in moments, but most of all it just felt very real.
One of the most fascinating things about this film is the use of the real life people portrayed in the film. It often cuts to this mostly white stage with the real Harvey Pekar doing narration for the film, but it’s not just narration for the story of the film, it also spends some time to comment about the film itself. One of the best moments was when there’s a scene with Harvey’s very nerdy friend with a very unusual speech pattern Toby played by Judah Friedlander. It then switches to a second camera that shows behind the scenes and we are introduced to the real Toby. It’s great because we get a chance to see how well Friedlander was able to match the look and sound of Toby, and the rest of the cast has the same level of similarities to their real life counterparts.
Along with the documentary moments, there was also the occasional use of animation in the style of R Crumb, especially as the seed of the comic book begins to grow inside of Pekar’s mind. They are often fairly simple moments, but are also quite effective. Paul Giamatti really helps encapsulate both the subtle, depreciating humor of Pekar along with his unique voice and personality ticks. There’s always this sense that Pekar just doesn’t have enough energy to stand up all the way straight, and yet he is able to lose his voice from shouting too much. He is a unique personality, he’s someone that gains a modicum of fame from his comics, but he never quits his mediocre job as a file clerk until right around the time of this film as they show his retirement party. He seemingly remains in a small apartment in Cleveland throughout his years as he lives as a borderline hoarder. He has no car and appears to relish the moments when he gets flown out to New York on David Letterman’s dime as it gives his comics a boost in sales.
The real pathos comes closer to the end of the film. At this point he’s on his third wife even though we only briefly saw his second. And a lot of the humor comes in with the idiosyncrasies of their personality quirks. Joyce has quite a few self-diagnosed illnesses, or at least the early stages or symptoms of these diseases, both physical and mental. Including food allergies and depression. She also diagnoses several of Pekar’s friends with varying mental disorders such as borderline autism, paranoia, and megalomania. But when she goes away to work on a project of her own, Pekar finds a lump which was the start of the events in their graphic novel Our Cancer Year. It’s a great moment that helps show the real strength of the bond they share that’s not always evident, as they spend much of their screen time either yelling at each other or at least having very different personalities. Joyce brings in a comic book artist to help get Pekar to detach himself from the process to help him get through the cancer treatments. That artist brings his young daughter Danielle, and while Pekar initially was against the idea, he sees the joy that Danielle brings to Joyce since they aren’t able to have kids themselves and agrees to the project as long as the artist continues to bring his daughter along. Not only that, but by the end of the film they end up essentially adopting Danielle themselves. Pekar isn’t always a character that you think you would care about, but seeing him go through this struggle and come out on top just makes you cheer for him.
The overall look of the film is also quite interesting. There is a dinginess that permeates almost everything except for the white room documentary scenes. The wardrobe generally looks like it has been worn longer than most people would wear their clothes. They aren’t obviously dirty, but there are small holes here and there, the furniture in Pekar’s apartment has cushions that are compressed with years of use and covered with scraps of paper and dishes. Everything feels almost like it’s under lit which makes it seem like he is either trying to hide the dirt, or is trying to save on electricity by using as few light bulbs as possible, or a combination of both. But by the end of the film, I was left with a deep curiosity to find out more about Pekar’s life as well as his death seven years after this film. It’s a tribute to the filmmakers as well as the writing of Pekar which inspired it that makes his extremely average existence feel extraordinary. Also, it’s a little mindboggling to find out that Danielle has grown up to become a bit of a goth artist. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.