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    American Splendor

    Hey big "Splendor"

    Holy Angst Batman! "American Splendor" reveals a comically refracted American dream, as seen through the cracked prism of comic-book author Harvey Pekar's eternally "half-empty" glass.


    Humor as a dramatic defense against the wrath of the gods was first devised by such early Greek and Roman humorists as Aristophanes and Plautus. And there's a special subspecies of humor that declares, "If I didn't laugh, I'd cry!" For the last quarter of a century, Harvey Pekar has defended himself from the gods he doesn't believe in, by charting his dreary day-to-day Cleveland existence via his dark postmodern graphic comix novelizations.

    Written and directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini.
    Adapted from comics by: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner.
    Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar, Judah Friedlander, Danny Hoch.

    Related links: Official site
    This summer's best page to screen adaptaion of a comic book isn't Ang Lee's big fat green disaster, "The Hulk," produced by James Schamus. That distinction belongs to this far more modest, yet much cleverer adaption of Pekar's "American Splendor," produced, ironically enough, by Schamus' former Good Machine partner, Ted Hope.

    Pekar's eponymous graphic novel-cum-biopic translates brilliantly to the screen thanks to the married co-directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Together they created this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner by combining live action with animation and using both actors and their real-life counterparts to produce a truly original docu-drama.

    American Splendor  
    There's the real Pekar; his on-screen doppelganger, played to perfection by the always marvelous Paul Giamatti ("Confidence"); Pekar's real-life wife, Joyce Brabner and her on-screen dopple-whatsit, the lovely Hope Davis ("Secret Lives of Dentists," "Next Stop Wonderland") completely obscured by a raccoonish pair of glasses and a halloween fright wig. There's even a play within the film featuring still another Harvey and Joyce played by Donal Logue and SNL's Molly Shannon, as well as cartoon versions of both.

    "American Splendor" tells the story of Pekar, a single, morose, lonely and horny obsessive/compulsive V.A. hospital clerk and comic book author. With the help of his third wife and sometime writing partner, Joyce Brabner, Pekar becomes a married, morose, obsessive/compulsive, cancer-surviving, retired clerk, comic book author and adoptive father. Surely the oddest of couplings in many moons.

      American Splendor
    Among the panoply of unusual characters are Pekar's fellow jazz record collector and artistic role model, Robert (aka R.) Crumb (an extraordinary performance from James Urbaniak/"Henry Fool") and Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), a borderline autistic co-worker and friend of Pekar's. Toby's a self-proclaimed "nerd" and proud of it, with the most distinctive speech pattern since Hoffman's "Rain Man," and a comb-over that rivals The Donald's.

    Crumb's a different sort of oddball, but it's his friendship and vision that kick-start Pekar's career as a graphic novelist. Over the years, Pekar was illustrated by at least a dozen different artists, which occasions one of the film's many comic highpoints. Joyce has never seen the real Harvey, only six or seven illustators' versions of what he looks like. When she arrives in Cleveland to meet him for the first time, multiple illustrated Harveys are sitting around the station.

    One of the best of a slew of excellent late-summer releases, "American Splendor" is a low-budget/instant cult classic, as original and true as its quirky progenitor and that's saying a lot. Don't just see the movie, read the graphic novel. As Pekar opines, "ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

    AUGUST 22, 2003

    Reader comments on American Splendor:

  • AMERICAN SPLENDOR   from C AROLE, Aug 31, 2003
  • American Splendour   from Sylvie, Oct 22, 2003

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