Film-Forward Review: [AMERICAN SPLENDOR]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Harvey (Giamatti) waits for Old Jewish Lady (Sylvia Kauders). Photo: Fine Line/HBO

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Directed & Written by: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini.
Produced by: Ted Hope.
Director of Photography: Terry Stacey.
Edited by: Robert Pulcini.
Music by: Mark Suozzo.
Released by: Fine Line/HBO.
Country of Origin: USA. 100 min. Rated: R.
With: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar & Joyce Brabner.

DVD Special Features: Commentary by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff, Danielle Batone, Paul Giamatti, and Judah Friedlander. “Road to Splendor” Sundance Channel featurette. HBO Films featurette. Music Only Track: “American Splendor” – by Eytan Mirsky. 3D interactive animation menus. Special “My Movie Year” 12-page comic insert featured in Entertainment Weekly. DVD-ROM section with Web site links and downloads. Five Easter Eggs. English/French/Spanish subtitles. Theatrical trailer.

In their award-winning 1998 documentary, Off The Menu: The Last Days Of Chasen’s, the writing/directing team of Berman and Pulcini succeeded in creating a fascinating review of one of Hollywood’s legendary star-filled restaurants. In this biopic, their first feature film, this talented team has succeeded in making Harvey Pekar (Giamatti) - a seemingly unremarkable Veterans Administration file clerk - as entertaining as any of the Hollywood megastars at Chasen’s. While the real Harvey Pekar does occasionally appear in the film (most hilariously during his visits with David Letterman) offering commentary, Paul Giamatti does a superb job of reliving Pekar’s trials and tribulations in working class Cleveland. Pekar’s obsession with jazz records and comic books lead him to write an autobiographical comic strip, which explores the every day lives of people like him. When the strip, American Splendor, starts to gain cult-like attention from readers across the country, Pekar lands himself a wife, a regular stint on Late Night With David Letterman and the pressures of fleeting fame, which he finds difficult to handle. Through all of this, however, Harvey manages to keep a level head, constantly documenting his sardonic experiences, even when they involve his own failing health. In his comic book Our Cancer Year, Harvey’s observation that “every day is still a major struggle” resonates, and it also is a feeling that he and his readers have come to recognize and embrace. That is why we can relate to Harvey, and what makes this movie touching, amusing and, ultimately, successful. Harvey the philosopher, with the support of his quirky and judgmental wife (excellently played by Hope Davis), somehow imparts a common man’s wisdom not taught in college philosophy classes. Living with your obsessions, loving those deserving of that love, and appreciating a career make life worthwhile.

Michael Morley, President of CineBLAST! Productions (Revolution #9, Bobby G. Can't Swim & Spring Forward)
August 15, 2003

DVD Extras: The “Road to Splendor” featurette is particularly enjoyable, with its emphasis on the disparate juxtaposition of Pekar and Brabner hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite and walking down the red carpet at events such as Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival. The group audio commentary is filled mostly with their anecdotes and humorous asides, like the moment when Pekar - who has been oddly quiet and laconic for a DVD commentary - decides to pick up a cell phone call. Brabner’s neurosis also shines through, particularly when she recalls how “angry and irate and irritable and frustrated and mad” she was when she heard Giamatti playing Pekar, since she kept mistaking him for the real Pekar straining his voice. The commentary also provides some information on the filmmaking process itself. Among the Easter eggs is a short homage to Pekar’s friend Toby Radloff, which is funny, but not too substantial. Some of the more neglibible Web site downloads in the ROM section include wallpapers, screensavers, and AIM icons. However, there are also links to Pekar’s Web site and the movie site containing tons of information; blogs by Pekar, Brabner, and their adopted daughter Danielle; and some of Harvey’s music reviews and essays that reveal his intellectual side, rather than the exaggeratedly loser shlub that is the most salient trait of Giamatti’s portrayal. Perhaps the biggest revelation of the sites - with the prominence of studio merchandising tie-ins and the like - is how the tension between Pekar’s desire not to “sell out” and his necessity to support himself and his family - a theme in the film - plays out in reality. Reymond Levy
February 22, 2004


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