Retro Film Review: American Splendor (2003)

in #aaalast month


Thanks to Hollywood, when people today hear of comic books they imagine larger-than-life superheroes whose spectacular adventures can't be adequately reconstructed on screen without hundreds of millions of dollars spent on CGI effects. American Splendor, 2003 biographic drama directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, represents antithesis of that vision.

The protagonist of this film is Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti), chronically depressed hospital file clerk from Cleveland who spent much of his life reading comic books. Along the way he befriended Robert Crumb (played by Robert Wosniak), cult author of underground comics and that served him as an inspiration to start "American Splendor" – series of autobiographic comic book chronicling his own mundane an depressing existence. The series is great success which will bring him fame, guest appearances on David Letterman Show and marriage to Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), great fan and inspiration for his future work. But this doesn't bring him happiness and the life has a nasty surprise for him in the form of cancer.

Authors of American Splendor try very hard to make the film look as unconventional as the life and character they portray. This is seen in the decision to employ three different ways to reconstruct Harvey Pekar's life – one is conventional film storytelling with actors; another is use of animated clips and images inspired by Pekar's comic books; the third is use of real-life Harvey Pekar who not only narrates his life but also uses opportunity to comment on actors portraying him and his friends. This combination of techniques not only manages to attract audiences' attention but also provides a lot of humour in otherwise very depressive film.

However, that very technique is also the film's main flaw. Paul Giamatti is great actor and Hope Davis, when put in the same shot with real Joyce, can put Charlize Theron and her Monster transformation to shame. However, despite their efforts they simply can't hold the candle to real characters and suspension of disbelief, necessary for audience to truly enjoy film, is nowhere to be seen. This doesn't mean that watching American Splendor represents waste of time. Good acting and confident direction are accompanied with likeable jazz music score that contributes a lot to the atmosphere of the film. However, American Splendor, despite being interesting and likeable, is a film that could be truly enjoyed only by the fans of Harvey Pekar's work.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on February 28th 2005)

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