A review of “American Splendor” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for language, nudity, and crudity

Run Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

 

 

“American Splendor” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it deserves major snaps for guts and originality.

Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a comic book legend, of sorts.  His work, based out of the blue-collar streets of Cleveland, Ohio, is devoted solely to the travails of the malcontent Everyman and his Everyday lifestyle.  Nothing is too mundane to capture Harvey’s creative spark, from standing in line at the grocery store to the humdrum workday tasks of collating and filing.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Harvey is a perennial loser (in his own words) who can’t illustrate his own comics, choosing instead to hire out his thoughts and deeds to talented up-and coming artists such as R. Crumb and Doug Zabel.

Harvey’s life is a bare canvas of the commonplace.  Things take a turn for the better when Harvey meets fellow comic book enthusiast Joyce Krajcar (Hope Davis), who marries Harvey because she doesn’t have anything better going on that week.  When Harvey develops a potentially cancerous lump, it’s just more fodder for the long-running anthology of his formulaic existence.

What could have been a routine re-telling of the life of yet another underground genius is more genius than it sounds.  Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have infused their little indie with an ultra-hip soundtrack and stellar performances by both Giamatti and the always remarkable Davis. But their biggest risk was editing in the real Harvey Pekar, a cantankerous eccentric who joins the action at regular intervals. Documentary meets narrative storyline as Harvey voices-over a particular story, acts out a certain incident, or complains that the lead bears no resemblance to him whatsoever.

The two incarnations of Harvey, coupled with the darkest of black humor, make for a snap-happy synthesis of art and reality that is one of the year’s most engaging watches.