The past few years in cinema have seen a lot of movies inspired by comic books. Hollywood recently, after the recent debacle of the Batman franchise, has taken a chance at the comic book genre and scored recent hits with Spider-Man and X-Men. Surely, both films and the recent X-Men sequel scored huge box office numbers. To cash in the success of those action comic book films, Hollywood produced many films on comic books but for some, the excessiveness of comic-inspired films like Daredevil and The Hulk were bland and predictable. Thankfully, independent films found an alternative through those comic book action films with their own brand of comic-inspired films. 1994 Crumb about cult comic creator Robert Crumb scored big with critics as filmmaker Terry Zwigoff followed that up with his 2001 movie Ghost World that was inspired by a cult comic book about two disillusioned teenage girls. Now, another comic book-inspired film has been made this year, but this time its about the comic book creator in the one of the years most anticipated releases, American Splendor.
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Based on the comic book of the same name by Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar, the film is about the life of Harvey Pekar and his on-going battle with his bleak life, marriage, and cancer. Unlike most comic book-inspired films, American Splendor is a part-documentary, part-animation, part-live action film that is abstract in its approach but the husband/wife team of screenwriters and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pucini make sure the film is entertaining at the same time. The film isnt just based on Pekars life and comic books but also the comic book novel Our Cancer Year that is co-written by his third wife Joyce Brabner. Hilarious, heartbreaking, and eccentric, American Splendor is so far, the years best film.
The film begins with a Halloween scene in the 1950s as kids dressed up like superheroes while little Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay) isnt wearing a costume but is going as himself but doesnt get any candy where we revealed the frustrations of his life. The film fast-forwards to 1975 where the adult Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is still working as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital. The frustrations and bleakness of his life is told by the real Harvey Pekar, who reveals his own frustration at his life was back then, while we see Pekar in the hospital with voice problems, as he sounds hoarse through years of screaming and his second wife Lana (Vivienne Benesch) has left and divorced him. Just as things couldnt be bad enough, Pekar tries to go on with his life while dealing with his voice problem.
Then the real Pekar talks about an old friend of his, cult comic book writer Robert Crumb (the creator of comics like Fritz the Cat and the famous album cover Cheap Thrills for Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin). Pekar talks about how he met Crumb (James Urbaniak) in 1962 as they collected old '78 vinyl jazz albums and comic books. By the mid-60s, Crumb had revolutionized the underground comic scene and would often visit Pekar as he becomes inspired by Crumbs success to make his own comic book. Pekar finds inspiration in a hilarious scene with his animated alter ego during a supermarket trip where an old Jewish lady is droning on about coupons. Pekar uses the frustrations of his life to write a comic based on his own life and the craziness that goes on. Only problem is that he couldnt draw and his stick-figure characters are terrible, so he goes to Crumb for help who illustrates the comic for Harvey that is entitled American Splendor where Harvey gets his voice back.
The comic is released while his fellow workers at the hospital clerk including his boss Mr. Boats (Earl Billing) and the nerdy Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), who lives with his grandmother, obsesses about jellybeans, and loves to eat White Castle burgers. The film then goes back to a scene where Friedlander and Giamatti are talking in the background while the real Pekar and Toby talk about jellybeans. While the comic for American Splendor only gained a small cult following, Pekar learns that he is lucky, especially after meeting an old college classmate Alice Quinn (Maggie Moore), who has now become a bored housewife and his glad that Harvey is doing something with his life although he still works as a file clerk. The meeting with Alice made Harvey ponder about his loneliness and his own existence as he captures his misery in his own comic.
While Pekar by the early 80s had only released eight issues of American Splendor at this point, the comics cult was growing including a young, mousy woman named Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). A Delaware comic-book store owner, activist, and teacher for convicts at prison, writes to Pekar about getting the eighth issue of his comic, that was sold at her store but she wanted it for herself. Pekar reads the letter and their friendship blooms through letters and phone conversations. Pekar asks Joyce if she would go to Cleveland to visit him. She does go to Cleveland where she meets Harvey and he tells her something that most people shouldnt know in their first meeting including the fact that hes a slob while she admits to having neuroses on people and having all sorts of strange, curable illnesses. They immediately have a depressing but thoughtful relationship in their less-than-24 hour meeting, especially a moment where Joyce pukes on the toilet after eating an awful Fridays-like restaurant. Then after a whole day together, Joyce and Harvey marry as we meet up with the real Joyce who becomes a character through Harveys comic that is portrayed fairly although none of their happier moments are revealed in the comic.
While life with Joyce has its moments, he has to deal with Joyces day sleeping and her comments on psychological name callings where she called Harvey compulsive, especially after a scene where she, Harvey, and Toby went to see Revenge of the Nerds where Harvey thought it was Hollywood bullsh*t while Toby and Joyce loved the way the nerds stood up for themselves. Harvey and Joyces relationship is pretty messy as she tries to find space for her stuff while Harvey is dealing with her neuroses, especially when they learned their comic has become a play where the couple is played by stage actors (Molly Shannon and Donal Logue) in a scene recreating their first date. With the comic of American Splendor growing, Harvey gets a chance to appear on David Letterman in the mid-80s. Joyce calls Letterman a megalomaniac while Harvey makes repeated appearances with his brash commentary on stuff that makes him look like a joke on Letterman while Toby gets a bit of fame doing a spot for MTVs Spring Break with a report from Kurt Loder.
Just as things werent bad enough for Harvey, Joyce leaves him for a few weeks on a retreat to Jerusalem when the most critical part of his life comes. He discovers a lump in his body while feeling very lonely on Joyce and blows all his frustrations during a Letterman appearance that forced a falling out between the two and when Joyce returned, she discovers that about the lump and Harvey has cancer. Joyce immediately decided to chronicle Harveys struggles into a comic-book novel with help from an animator and his daughter Danielle (Madylin Sweeten), who brings new life to Harvey and Joyce and eventually, became their adoptive daughter (the real Danielle appears as well) as the two works on their greatest work to date, Our Cancer Year.
The genius behind American Splendor is not in its abstract approach but the way Pucini and Berman crafted a movie that is funny and dramatic at the same time. A few times, the film cuts back into the real life of the Pekars and animated scenes, while making it accessible for its audience. With brilliant editing from Pucini and a bleak, worldly cinematography from Terry Stacey, the films look is pure Americana as it shows the bleakness in its small towns while colorful and broad in the cities. The films script and direction doesnt lose consistency although some might not understand the films unconventional approach. Still, the films genius is in its unconventional tone and the animated scenes by John Kuramato are brilliant, especially for an indie film. The use of music ranging from jazz, soul, and cheesy pop songs like The Pina Colada song is used greatly by music supervisor Linda Cohen and the score of Mark Suozzo gives the film its Americana tone. Even the footage of the real Harvey Pekar in the Letterman show is priceless to watch (the last episode with Letterman was re-created since Harvey goes berserk on the show while Letterman was just trying to do his job).
Then there are the performances from the actors of the film. The scenes with the real Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Toby Radloff are priceless as they act like themselves with their eccentricities and sometimes, melancholic tone. The real Harvey Pekar is the soul of the film as he plays this pathetic, ugly loser who is actually interesting while he downplays it as uninteresting. Paul Giamatti delivers a riveting performance as Harvey Pekar where he doesnt try to look or play the real Pekar but channels the frustrations and warmth of this loveable loser turn cult icon with heart and brash humor. Hope Davis is also spellbinding as Joyce Brabner as she brings a very ordinary look to Brabner while belting out great, hilarious psychological comments. The scenes with Giamatti and Davis are also brilliant to watch as they reveal the love and frustrating relationship between Pekar and Brabner. The small performances of James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb and Earl Billings as Mr. Boats each standout in their own form. Another performance that often steals the show is from Judah Friedlander as the nerdy Toby who just rules throughout the film and who could not love a nerd eating White Castle burgers?
American Splendor is a funny, heartwarming, and compelling masterpiece from Robert Pucini & Shari Springer Berman. The film has moments for everyone whether to laugh or have something to relate to while being entertained at the same time. Its no wonder this film got acclaim from the Cannes Film Festival and won the grand jury prize at Sundance. Its not just Pucini, Berman, Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander that deserves some recognition and awards but Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner as well. Not only will this film increase Pekars cult following but it might actually bring a new genre of alternative comic stories, the filmmakers just better make sure they find the right one. With a summer of uninspiring films, American Splendor was definitely worth the wait in an uninspiring year of summer blockbusters. Whether or not Pekar will find some happiness in his newfound fame, his story has made him a true American hero. Whether or not American Splendor will be the years best film, its already an American classic thanks to working class hero turned comic book icon.
***Short Trailer Reviews***
Once Upon A Time In the Midlands (3 out of 5).
Starring Robert Carlyle, Rhys Ifans, and Shirley Henderson.
The film about a man (Robert Carlyle) coming back to a bleak town in England to meet his old girlfriend (Shirley Henderson), who already has a boyfriend (Rhys Ifans), while things are going chaotic in their working class town. Looks pretty good for a British comedy including a scene involving robbers in clown makeup.
Pieces of April (3 out of 5)
Starring Katie Holmes, Derek Luke, Sean Hayes, Patricia Clarkson & Oliver Platt
A movie where a young woman (Holmes) is trying to make up with her estranged family and ill mother (Clarkson) by making Thanksgiving dinner with all sorts of trouble while racing against time so they can meet her new boyfriend (Luke). Looks funny and actually might be something good. Holmes looks promising and if it works, then shell make a good crossover into indie films.
Lost in Translation (5 out of 5)
Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anna Farris.
Sofia Coppolas 1999 follow-up to The Virgin Suicides takes us to Tokyo where an actor (Murray) is filming a television commercial for a Japanese whiskey while meeting a young woman (Johansson) who both tries to find happiness through their bleak lifestyle. This film looks very promising and its visuals are spellbinding as this film could be the best film of 2003 with a very strong buzz from the Venice Film Festival.
***End of Trailer Reviews***
Ghost World (2001):
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