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AMERICAN SPLENDOR, 2003
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Shari Springer Berman, James Urbaniak, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, and Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar is file clerk at the local VA hospital. His interactions with his co-workers offer some relief from the monotony, and their discussions encompass everything from music to the decline of American culture to new flavors of jellybeans and life itself. At home, Harvey fills his days with reading, writing and listening to jazz. His apartment is filled with thousands of books and LPs, and he regularly scours Cleveland's thrift stores and garage sales for more, savoring the rare joy of a 25-cent find.
#70 on WILDsound and comingsoon.net reviewer Joshua Starnes' top 100 movies of all-time list, American Splendor is one of those movies that little people know about because the film is about a guy little people know about: Harvey Pekar. An underground comic legend who writes a comic book of his own life as a Cleveland blue color hospital file clerk worker.
American Spendor, the comic book, is strictly about the the life of an average guy living an ordinary life. Pekar is Seinfeld before Seinfeld happened but with a more dark humor twist on the daily observations of life. And he's a nicer, much deeper thinker than Larry David is, and doesn't have any of the showboaty antics of the Curb Your Enthusiasm show. That's why he writes in the underground comic book world and doesn't have his own network sitcom!
Directed by the previous documentary film-making team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor is a part documentary / part non-fiction movie / part live-action feature film. In the beginning of the film they interview the real Harvey Pekar talking about how this actor is playing him in his movie. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar in such a magnificent and original way that he deserves accolades for the rest of his life for just this performance. Throughout the film we go back to the real Pekar and the other real life people from his life being played in the movie, while jumping back to the live-action film. I've never seen a film made this way and I haven't seen one made like this since. It's such a unique way to make a movie I don't think it can be repeated because it seems to only work for this particular film and its subject.
Pekar is a zany ordinary guy. The kind of guy you see on the bus sitting by himself with that bitter facial expression. He's a bit ugly but not that ugly as he's kind of forgettable. And he writes about his daily life. He doesn't dramatize his life moments to heighten conflict or makes points of ideal-isms on how to be a better man etc... He is who he is. So the filmmakers, I'm assuming, at the beginning knew if they wanted to do a movie on this guy that they couldn't idealize his life and make him something better or worse that he really is (something all other BIO-PICS are guilty of doing) because that would contradict exactly who this guy really is. But the way they made the film itself in terms of formatting and structure could be idealized. And what a masterstroke this creative decision was.
I can see why Starnes put this on his list of the top 100 greatest films of all-time. It's unique, plus it has a lot of heart as the audience has an easy time liking Pekar a whole lot, even though if we met him in real life we probably wouldn't. And that's what makes Paul Giammati's performance so fantastic. He has the ability to stay true to the real emotions of this guy, looking moody and gruff doing it, while also showing us the true heart of who he really is too.
And that's why Harvey Pekar's comic book was probably so popular in the first place. Most of us, especially the underground comic book readers, get this guy because most of his readers are this guy. An insecure but smart and poignant man living in the common existence of Americana. He rails against the system but really can't live without it because he needs the security of the consistent paychecks and daily interactions that the system gives him.
There's a moment in the movie (and in one of his comic books) where Pekar wakes up from a recurring nightmare. He keeps dreaming that he's unemployed. That is his and many other people's greatest fear. They need the security that the western world system gives them, but they also think that they are that much smarter than everyone else living in it and feel it's also their job to take stabs against it. They are in that constant state of love and hate within themselves and their environment. And that's what Pekar writes about and that is what American Splendor is really about. That and you really need someone else to live your life with because loneliness is really a terrible thing.
There are two BIO-PIC stories I've always wanted to do a film about (which I probably will someday). The first is the story of Elvis Presley. I know thethereve been tons of books, a few movies and even a short lived TV series already done about him, but I never thought anyone has ever gotten the exact tone of him and the world's reaction to the first ever rock star. And the second is a George Steinbrenner like tale of the gigantic rise of sports in the later 20th century to today's world of 24 hour sports channels, gambling, obsessed fans, steroids and cheating etc..., focusing on one owner in the biz and his manipulations to achieve victory, while it's just a insecurity of his own inadequate to play sports himself and always getting picked last on the team growing up. The puppeteer controlling the puppets because he always wanted to be a puppet story.
But I never wanted to do it in the paint by numbers way most bio-pic movies are done. Some of these movies are good, but structurally there really isn't an original take on the stories. All of them are your typical rise and fall and rise again with perspective tales that all of us have seen a million times again.
Then a little move called AMERICAN SPLENDOR came out in 2003.
American Splendor is a terrific film and it's really the template in how to really make a BIO-PIC movie. It's a film I like watching again and again because there's always something new I notice in the viewing experience that I missed out on before.