Saturday, February 6, 2016

It's Real Life, Man

Film: American Splendor
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

As I look through the various lists of films on my different lists, there are a few movies I’ve kept back for when I needed them. American Splendor is one of those movies. I’ve seen this a couple of times before; it’s a film I know I like. I’ve felt lately like I’ve been in a cinematic rut, and having been really enjoying what I’m watching as much as I think I should. American Splendor felt like a good way to get out of that rut.

American Splendor is based on the comic books written by Harvey Pekar about his own life as an average guy working a dead-end job as a VA hospital file clerk in Cleveland. And that’s really it. It’s just the life of an average man dealing with his life. What makes American Splendor interesting is not so much the stories that we’re told (they’re real life, after all, except for the fact that Harvey Pekar’s real life is also a comic series), but the style in which those stories are told. American Splendor mixes the comic world with the real world and also mixes the real world with the film world. There are layers upon layers of reality and non-reality here, and it all blends into something perfectly coherent.

Allow me to explain. Within the context of the film, Harvey Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti, but the film is narrated by the real Harvey Pekar, who also appears as himself in backstage scenes of the film. But are they really backstage scenes, since they are a part of the script? Or were these scenes unscripted and simply filmed as something like a fourth wall break? I don’t really know. Other dual roles include Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner played by Hope Davis in the film and herself behind the scenes and Harvey’s friend Toby Radloff by Judah Friedlander and himself as well.

What I find particularly interesting here is the difference between Giamatti’s version of Harvey and the real Harvey. The real Harvey Pekar comes across as an average guy while Giamatti plays him as someone constantly upset by something—someone else’s inconsideration, other people’s stupidity, and life’s inconveniences. Giamatti’s Harvey seems to expect that life is supposed to be better than it is, that there’s something that he’s not getting that everyone else is while the real Harvey Pekar seems more or less resigned to what life is rather than what he thinks it’s supposed to be.

So where does it go? The film includes the destruction of Harvey’s second marriage, his meeting with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), the production of his comics, his meeting with Joyce who would become his third wife soon after that meeting, his rise as sort of a folk hero, and his diagnosis and survival of cancer. The moments behind the scenes with the real Harvey Pekar come across as essentially documentary, talking about how the comic changed his life and gave him a creative outlet and a way to discuss his world and his life on a larger stage.

There is something really beautiful about American Splendor in that it doesn’t feel forced or fake. For a film in which cartoon versions of Harvey show up in the real world at times, or where cartoon thought balloons appear over Paul Giamatti’s head, the film comes across as a narrative of the man’s life honestly and fairly. The complexity of the way in which it was filmed—having real people walking on comic backgrounds, drops into the real world with the actual people behind the story—is in contrast to the simplicity of what is being told. It’s just Pekar’s life with the more interesting moments (his frequent appearances on the David Letterman show, for instance) coming about simply because he became someone willing to share his everyday life with the rest of the world.

There’s a lot to like here. American Splendor is almost indescribable. It’s creative and normal and extraordinary all at once, and it’s one of Paul Giamatti’s best roles. I can absolutely see someone watching this and hating it. I’m not that person. I think this is a special film that does a lot of things right and makes all of its risks pay off.

Why to watch American Splendor: Inventive filming.
Why not to watch: There’s a lot of mental gear shifting needed between the film and the real people.


  1. First of all, I like this movie very much.

    Second of all, it's been a couple days and I'm the first commenter? WTF? No else has seen this? Everybody reading this - go find this movie and watch it.

    In regards to what was real vs. scripted I saw an interview with Giamatti where he said the jellybean scene where he and Friedlander are smiling while watching the real Pekar and Radloff talk about jellybeans was unscripted - that he didn't know the camera was even on because it was between shots.

    There's even another level of unreality in the film when the Giamatti/Davis combo watch a play being put on about their lives. If I remember right, it was Donal Logue and Molly Shannon playing them.

    There are so many little moments in this movie that I love. One that comes to mind is the bit about his name in the phonebook and how he discovers he's not the only Harvey Pekar in town.

    1. I had forgotten a lot of the details of this film. Rewatching it made me realize exactly why I had such fond memories of it. I like pretty much everything about it.

      The scene with the play is just another level of recursiveness. Actors playing Joyce and Harvey watch actors playing Joyce and Harvey while the real Harvey speaks in voiceover. It sounds confusing, but it all makes sense.