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American Splendor

A grouch for all seasons

Adapting comic books to film is a difficult undertaking. Besides telling the basic story, you have to make the superhero relevant for new audiences while trying to avoid alienating hardcore fans. Somewhere along the way the movie becomes just another gussied-up action film featuring colorful, far-out characters.

Not so with American Splendor. This film, based on the "American Splendor" series of autobiographical comic books that Harvey Pekar began in 1976, is not only a great comic book adaptation, it's a truly perfect film. The reason is simple: It's honest to its subject matter and it's honest to its audience. There isn't one false note in the entire picture.

American Splendor follows the everyday life of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), a grumpy, disheveled loner who collects old jazz records, devours books and comics, and whiles away his working days as a bored file clerk at the local V.A. hospital. Despite his hermitlike ways, he makes some friends - notably Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), a local greeting card artist who creates something of a name for himself drawing underground comics. Harvey hits upon an idea to write stories about his humdrum, working-class life and have Crumb illustrate them because he himself can't draw a stick figure to save his life. Characteristically, he calls this warts-and-all portrait "American Splendor".

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who both wrote and directed the film, transfer Pekar's sensibilities expertly to the screen. Starting with the opening credits, which bring the storyboards to life, it's clear that the creative juices are just beginning to flow. Pekar walks the streets of Cleveland with a huge chip on his shoulder and a cool jazz score in the background. The skies are washed out and the colors muted. Except for the absence of a dead body somewhere, his acerbic voiceover lends the movie the dispiriting element of film noir.

Because of the autobiographical nature of "American Splendor," it's not surprising when the real Harvey Pekar appears, commenting on his appearance in this film about his life and work. What is surprising, however, is when several others from Pekar's life make their way into the film as well. It's art imitating life, sometimes in the same scene.

That life gets more interesting when Pekar befriends fellow comic book fan Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). She meets him ostensibly to pick up a copy of his most recent issue, but ends up spending the rest of her life with him. This "self-diagnosed anemic" woman, with her own sardonic take on life, is a match made in Cleveland for the self-effacing Pekar.

American Splendor, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, is destined for audience acclaim because it treats life's mundane annoyances with the respect that most everyone can relate to. Whether it's choosing the fastest lane at the supermarket, finding the most accurate jellybean flavor, appreciating a weird gem like Revenge of the Nerds or just getting through the day till five o'clock, this biopic turns the genre on its head and admits that even when everyone is smiling at the end, there's always something to complain about.


American Splendor
Rated R
1 hour 40 minutes

Paul Giamatti
Hope Davis
Judah Friedlander