American Splendor (2003)

11 Sep

Comics! You gotta love comics, with all those superheroes running around saving the day and very occasionally being tortured by what they are. But that doesn’t matter, because they’ll save the city and get the girl anyway. Who cares if they cause $20bn worth of damage? That’s less than the $20.5bn of damage that would be caused if the bad guy won. So here, we’re presented with yet another comic book adaptation. But forget everything I’ve just said about caped crusaders. The only thing American Splendor crusades against is cancer and the monotony of day to day life.

It’s a biopic of Harvey Pekar, who wrote the stories for the American Splendor comics by drawing on episodes from his everyday life.  Pekar himself narrates the tale, and makes a couple of appearances alongside his workmate Toby Radloff and his wife Joyce Brabner to talk about some elements of his life and philosophise a little bit. In the movie section of the film, Paul Giamatti is brilliant playing out the various scenes of Harvey’s life, from a yard sale in 1965 to the relative fame and fortune of the 1980s, where Pekar was a regular on the Letterman show. Hope Davis is understated as Joyce, capturing her swings of depression and perceptive nature wonderfully. For me though the best performance of the movie comes from Judah Friedlander – best known for his role as Frank in 30 Rock – as Toby. He captures the borderline-autistic nature and out-and-proud nerd characteristics of Radloff brilliantly, and when the real Toby turns up halfway through the film, it’s hard to see where the real man starts and Friedlander’s performance begins.

Left: The Real Harvey and Toby. Right: Friedlander and Giamatti

This is essentially a tale of an angry man’s journey through life as a file clerk and the way he deals with his fame after the success of his comics. He comes to realise that he’s being used by Letterman and hasn’t been treated as well as he perhaps should: at the end of the day, he was still a file clerk working a dead-end job at a Cleveland hospital, eventually surviving cancer and making it to retirement. But despite this seemingly heavy subject matter, the movie is often hilarious: it exposes some of the ridiculous things that happen in ordinary life and the strange conversations and occurences that take place every day. The comic-book style thought bubbles, drawings and captions that appear periodically through the film also help to lighten the mood (as well as helping to visualise some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings more explicitly. Just like in the American Splendor comics).

I would really recommend anyone who has an interest in comics and their history to check out this movie. Likewise, if you’re into American Indie movies and films with a lo-fi feel then you’ll also enjoy it: the latter was the main reason I wanted to watch this, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

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One Response to “American Splendor (2003)”

  1. Thais September 14, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    wow, I have to see it now. Besides, I’m a fan of Frank, but had never saw the actor in other roles [at least, not non-comical ones].

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