'American Splendor' captures cartoonist's multifaceted personality
Seattle Times movie critic
"American Splendor" is that rarity: a true original. So is Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland comic-book writer and file clerk who provides the movie's inspiration. Captured from all angles, like a 360-degree mirror, he's the year's unlikeliest movie hero.
In the film, a wildly creative re-telling of Pekar's life, the lead character is played by Paul Giamatti, with a perpetual scowl and the squiggly posture of a candle snuffer. But the real Harvey turns up as well, commenting on the action in his inimitable voice, a gargle interrupted by a strangle. Then there's the animated Harvey, drawn by the various artists who've contributed to the comic book (Pekar writes the words; others draw the action), and even an onstage Harvey (Donal Logue), in a play inspired by the "American Splendor" comic-book series.
It's windows within windows, peeking into Harvey's soul; hard to describe yet invigorating to watch. Co-directors Sherry Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini find an approach somewhere between narrative and documentary, and the result brings new life to both genres. We watch Giamatti's Harvey conduct one of those only-at-work discussions (involving jelly beans, I believe) with his proudly nerdy colleague Toby (Judah Friedlander). Then the camera moves sideways, like eyes gliding across the panels of a comic, and there's the real Harvey and Toby, in a studio against a stark white background, continuing the same conversation seemingly without a script.
"American Splendor" would be splendid enough as an exercise in style and genre-bending, but the film's happiest surprise is its simplest and most unexpected: It's a heartwarmer. Harvey, we come to learn, is a curmudgeon, and not a particularly lovable one — he lives in squalor in a nondescript mud-brown building (actually, most of Cleveland is depicted in that same mud-brown), listening obsessively to the old jazz records that line his saggy shelves. Even when his comic-book series becomes a cult success, he's still a grump, and a lonely one.
Enter an unexpected soul mate. Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis, and by Brabner herself), a bespectacled comic-book-store owner, "American Splendor" fan and sardonic hypochondriac, arrives in Cleveland for a visit. She takes in Harvey's life, as if in one gaze, and promptly inserts herself into it. On their first date, she describes her various ailments to an intrigued Harvey. "You're a sick woman," he breathes, not unadmiringly. They are soon married, and facing a crisis together: Harvey's cancer diagnosis, now in remission (which they chronicled in the co-written comic "Our Cancer Year").
Every performance in "American Splendor" is a small masterpiece of detailed character work: Watch how Davis' brow furrows almost imperceptibly, like she can't quite believe what she's seeing; listen to the crackle of James Urbaniak's voice as fellow comic-book artist (and Pekar buddy) Robert Crumb. Harvey isn't one for Hollywood-happy endings, but this film provides perhaps the year's sweetest — an unmistakable circle of love, around a superhero without tights, but with his own real-life magic.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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