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With: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar
Written by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, based on comics by Harvey Pekar
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 101
Date: 01/20/2003

American Splendor (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Last Fraction Hero

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"God is in the details," Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, and thatquote cannot be truer than in American Splendor, the real story of afile clerk who published an underground comic book about his humdrumlife.

Upon meeting underground "comix" legend Robert Crumb, Cleveland resident Harvey Pekar realized that he, too, could put out a comic book about real life. He couldn't draw, so he just jotted down his ideas amongst some primitive stick figures and coaxed Crumb and other artists into filling in the blanks.

The new movie American Splendor is based on Pekar's annual comic book and, respectively, on Pekar's life. Adapted and directed by former documentary filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the film jumps around like the comic book, telling single episodes of Pekar's life, starting with his vocal chord problems and his obsession with record collecting.

Berman and Pulcini play with time and physical space, and even with reality; they interview the real Pekar on camera while the actor playing Pekar (Paul Giamatti) sits just off to the side.

And when the movie Pekar meets his true love for the first time in a bus station, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), she looks around nervously, picturing three different black-and-white comic book versions of Harvey before the flesh-and-blood one turns up.

American Splendor even turns poignant and harrowing for a while when Pekar battles cancer and Joyce decides that they will document the battle in a new comic called "Our Cancer Year."

It's difficult not to compare American Splendor to Terry Zwigoff's last two films, the documentary Crumb and the fiction film Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes' graphic novel. Both movies had the same cynical worldview -- and both featured obsessive record collecting -- but Zwigoff managed to find a kind of warmth and humanity in his characters, however twisted.

It's much harder to get under Harvey's skin. For all his dark views of himself and others, he's still a very guarded character. His permanent scowl and accusing eyes make him tough to hang around.

Fortunately, character actor Giamatti -- who started turning up in memorable roles around 1998 in Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show and The Negotiator -- does brilliant things in the role, most notably with his flicking eyes. In one scene, he tells an odd, touching story about two other "Harvey Pekars" listed in the Cleveland phone book. As he talks to the camera, his eyes keep flicking suspiciously to the side, as if expecting someone to suddenly jump him from behind, or unwilling to completely meet the unblinking gaze of his audience.

Likewise Miss Davis, who plays Pekar's current wife Joyce. Swathed in a brooding black wig and giant, owl-like glasses, Joyce also has a sad, cynical lostness, but also a warm nurturing side that Davis balances perfectly.

When American Splendor begins, a group of children trick-or-treat around Cleveland dressed as a pack of super-heroes -- except for Pekar, who's dressed as himself. He's not necessarily a super-hero, the movie seems to say, but in some ways, he's certainly heroic.

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