The Big Break Review:
AMERICAN SPLENDOR [2003/USA/R]
Still confused? Well, the way the filmmakers achieve this 'pseudo-documentary' construct is by 'crossing the line' from re-enactment to documentary and back again by using actors AND the real people the actors are portraying.
Aside from this unique storytelling device, as far as biographical films go this one is pretty good. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this bio-pic of a file-clerk turned comic book writer is almost as unique artistically as last year's Frida, though the subject profiled here is much less extraordinary than Frida Kahlo was.
Not to be insulting, but even Harvey Pekar himself admits that he's a very ordinary guy, and it's his observations of daily life that spurred him to write his own 'non-superhero' underground comic book. An autobiographical look at his life in Cleveland with each issue drawn by different artist. The first issue was drawn by the legendary Bob Crumb.
Where this film crosses into documentary territory, so to speak, is by substituting an omniscient narrator with the 'real' Harvey Pekar, and occasionally letting him appear in the film to comment on the action and even on the actor playing him.
Amazingly, actor Paul Giamatti (Man on the Moon) does such a great impersonation that you don't really notice at first that it's the real Harvey doing the narrating while Giamatti is playing him.
And even though Harvey's real-life wife 'Joyce' barely resembles actress Hope Davis (About Schmidt), the actress captures her persona very well.
The only other major character to appear in the film as himself is Harvey's clerking friend 'Toby,' a self-proclaimed 'nerd' and you'll see why.
Comic fans will enjoy seeing the use of actual panels from the American Splendor issues and the illustrated novel My Year With Cancer combined with Harvey's running commentary. At one point, Harvey's character actually disappears into a comic book panel for an amusing monologue.
If you are not familiar with Harvey Pekar, he is best known for his ascerbic wit, brutal honesty, and self-deprecation. He was frequently a regular guest on the old David Letterman show till he started taunting the NBC network. As for his self-deprecating humor, one of the best lines in the movie is when he looks into the mirror and says, "now there's another consistent disappointment."
Not for all tastes, but you may get a few chuckles from this Cleveland everyman while being entertained by an excellent cast.
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