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"American Splendor"

Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
Written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.  Based on the comic series by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.
Starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.
Release Year:  2003 
Review Date:  8/24/03


It won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival...but, what the hell does that mean to Joe Commoner like you and me?

Well, it means that you will have a good time watching “American Splendor”, based on the comic books of the same name created by Harvey Pekar, but cineastes will love it and for the average filmgoer, you’ll probably come away thinking that it has some good laughs and some cool touches, but nothing to write home about.  What can’t be debated is the performance by Paul Giamatti as Pekar; a career journeyman that has always been (at best) the eighth or ninth-credited performer in a film, it’s always great to see someone that has worked in the trenches for so long get the chance to step up and play the lead, and Giamatti is brilliant throughout “American Splendor” as the lovable loser at the film’s core.  The true-to-life plot follows Pekar from his days growing up in Cleveland to 1962, when he meets fellow comics lover Bob Crumb (James Urbaniak) at a garage sale and later in 1975, when Pekar--working as a file clerk at a VA Hospital--decides to start writing stories that Crumb illustrates, making him a cult-level working-class hero.  Later in the film, we get to the 80s and Pekar’s third marriage, to Joyce (Hope Davis), and the ongoing life adventures of Harvey and his new-found success.

Giamatti does all of the heavy lifting; the script by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the twosome also directed) has some great moments of levity and pacing is strong out of the box.  When Davis enters the film, it just gets better--the laughs are bigger, the drama is bigger, the banter is bigger.  The film is loaded with a great supporting cast, and Harvey’s co-workers at the hospital are mostly hilarious; the best turn comes from the mentally challenged clerk Toby (Judah Friedlander), who has two great film moments featuring the 80s film “Revenge of the Nerds” and White Castle hamburgers; anytime a film gives a shout-out to White Castle, you need to make note of it!  I also enjoyed seeing frames from the actual comics themselves, and commentary on the fact that it seems like Harvey (as the star of his comic) is drawn a different way by the many illustrators that worked on “American Splendor” throughout its history.

The main beef I had with “American Splendor” is with its constant cutting to Pekar himself; the filmmakers seem to enjoy having the real-life Pekar insert voice-over and in-movie interview shots throughout the movie, and I think that this is something that either you absolutely love or you just don’t like.  It serves to stop the pacing of the movie by getting feedback from its subjects, and that didn’t work for me.  In one scene, it appears that the filmmakers cut an in-movie scene with Giamatti (as Pekar), then have him walk through an interview with the real-life Pekar, while having both in the same shot.  Just don’t like it.  I did like the way the film cut to interviews that happened back in the 80s between Pekar and David Letterman WITHOUT using Giamatti; but then, the last Letterman interview is done using actors.  Baffling.

Otherwise, “American Splendor” is a good time, and hopefully, Giamatti will be recognized for his great work next spring.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09