• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:May 25, 2021

American Splendor: Animated Life


When I was a kid I used to make my own comic books, often together with my buddies. Eventually that interest morphed into my current obsession with movies. However, one of my friends kept at it, got published and remains somewhat active. A few years ago he started portraying his teen years in his comics, as well as those of me and our other friends. I was reminded of this when I watched the film adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s comic book series “American Splendor”.

Working at a Veteran’s Administration hospital
It is the mid-seventies and we’re in Cleveland, Ohio. Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) works as a file clerk at a Veteran’s Administration hospital. It is a dead-end job and Harvey’s wife has left him. At a relatively young age, Harvey has turned into a depressed, constantly complaining curmudgeon. He doesn’t really have much to live for, but his friendship with underground artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) inspires him. At that time comic books usually portrayed superheroes or were comic strips meant to entertain newspaper readers while they were having their morning coffee. What if, Harvey thinks, someone made comic books about regular people? He starts writing the text for one. Since he can’t draw at all, he asks Crumb for his opinion; he likes what he sees and decides to draw Harvey’s comic book.

As the years go by, Harvey is recognized for his work, but never makes enough money to quit his crushingly boring day job. Eventually, he meets Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) who runs a comic book store in Delaware. They turn out to be a perfect match and get married… but that doesn’t mean everything gets a Hollywood ending.

A fascinating mix
On several occasions, I have written in previous reviews that I admired the film in question, but didn’t love it, which justified a somewhat modest rating. This is one of those films that I admire but don’t love, but I’m nevertheless giving it a high rating – this is simply too well made to deserve anything less.  It is partly a straight adaptation of Pekar’s “American Splendor” and his and Brabner’s “Our Cancer Year” (detailing Pekar’s struggle with lymphoma), partly a documentary with the real-life Pekar and Brabner talking about the comic books and providing narration.

It’s a fascinating mix and there’s even an element of theater to the whole thing, with the actors and the real-life persons appearing on a stage. The directors occasionally let their characters walk in and out of comic book frames; it is however important to them to let us understand that what we’re watching is as true to Pekar and his life as possible. Honesty is crucial to Harvey as we can see in a few devastating clips from his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. The fact that the directors are married to each other probably affect the portrayal of Harvey’s marriage to Joyce; it is very realistic, not romantic in a classic Hollywood way, but… reasonable and affectionate.

Giamatti is perfect as Harvey, a man who always finds new reasons to view life as bleakly as possible; he truly uses his whole body and demeanor to become this character. Davis is also excellent as his wife, a woman who is very similar to Harvey but nurtures a more passionate interest in politics.

There really isn’t anything in this film that disappoints; it is frequently interesting and amusing. I came away thinking that my childhood friend is actually carrying on the legacy of Harvey Pekar. Thanks to this grumpy Cleveland native, comic books took one step closer to being accepted as a true art form that reflect on our daily lives. Not bad for a regular working stiff.

American Splendor 2003-U.S. 101 min. Color. Produced by Ted Hope. Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini. Comic Books: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner (“American Splendor”, “Our Cancer Year”). Cast: Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), James Urbaniak, Earl Billings, Donal Logue.

Trivia: Jonathan Demme allegedly first considered making a movie based on Pekar’s comic book series.

Last word: “We come from a documentary background. And when you make documentaries you sort of use whatever tools you have to tell the story, because you get whatever footage you get and then you supplement it with photographs and stock footage. We kind of approached this movie the same way, which was we didn’t limit ourselves to just making a narrative film. We were like, ‘Why not?’ Especially because we felt like ‘American Splendor’ called for it. It’s a very innovative comic book.” (Springer Berman, IGN)



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