Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Fifteen

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#15 — American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
The past decade was a good time for deconstructed narrative in film. Beginning with the mad flush of creativity of the cinematic year 1999, when the likes of Being John Malkovich, Run Lola Run, Fight Club, and even marginally more conventional fare like The Matrix and The Sixth Sense, were as much about the structure of storytelling as they were the travails of their respective characters, there was a newfound willingness (newfound outside of experimental film anyway) to bend the track of traditional film narrative into a sort of cinematic Mobius strip. That fresh freedom, and the vitally important audience awareness of the rules of narrative that came with it, allowed filmmakers of all persuasions to push boundaries in different ways across the past ten years. Creators such as Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry were especially keen to comment on their own work as it unspooled, but it was a pervasive enough trend that markers of meta could be found in any number of films. Sometimes it was a signal of self-importance. More often, it represented abundant creativity. That quality is present in American Splendor, couple with a charged playfulness that may not entirely suit its central figure. It does, however, elevate the whole project to the rare air of deviously clever entertainment.

American Splendor is also the title of the underground comic book series written by Harvey Pekar since the mid-seventies. Autobiographical by design, the series was renowned for its immersion in the mundane, serving as a direct refutation of the sort of spandex-clad supermen that usually populated publications structured around sequential art laid out in square panels. Pekar was known for relating simple stories of his life as a file clerk in Cleveland. The film doesn’t strictly adapt those stories as much as it tries to capture the spirit of them. It is about Harvey’s perpetually strained relationships and minor obsessions, but it is also about the process of him shaping it into his own sort of art, how that are shapes his life and how he shapes his life to accommodate that art. It is equally about the creator and the creation.

This makes it especially fitting that Springer Berman and Pulcini approach the material with a willingness to stretch it out, fully testing its parameters. They cast Paul Giamatti to play Harvey Pekar in the film, but also recruited Pekar to appear in it. He narrates the film and also sits before the camera to get interviewed by the filmmakers, answering questions about the situations that have just been dramatized, leveling the deadened skepticism of his gaze at the camera and he waxes with a battered incredulous amusement about the film itself, the very premise that anyone is interested in him, that anyone is proffering his story with the sort of phoniness that is necessary for a fictionalized film version. At their most daring, Springer Berman and Pulcini let their different world intermingle. Paul Giammati finishes a scene as Pekar, “Cut!” is audibly yelled, and he walks onto another, different styled set to watch the man he’s just played engage in a discussion about jelly beans, utterly unaffected by the cameras rolling a few feet in front of him. And when Harvey reaches his highest peak of notoriety (at least before the movie) by appearing on David Letterman’s old Late Night show on NBC, Springer Berman and Pulcini structure a scene around Pekar stalking unhappily around the green room with Giamatti playing Pekar, only to have him walk out for his segment, getting replaced by his real life counterpart in actual footage from the show. It never feels manipulative, never feels pointlessly showy. Instead, it’s just taking advantage of every possible avenue to get at truthfulness, a strategy entirely in keeping with Pekar’s agitated pronouncements against human fakery. Over the years, Pekar’s printed representation was rendered by several different artists. In its alternating methods of depicting Pekar, the film version of American Splendor manages to achieve its own sort of variety.

That sort of approach could easily undermine the performances, putting the actors next to those they’re depicting, potentially inviting unfavorable comparisons. Instead, it enhances them. Giamatti doesn’t deliver a perfect impersonation of Pekar, but the actual man’s demeanor is a compelling testimony as to how effectively the actor has captured his personality and his acerbic defeatism. Similarly, Hope Davis captures something more important that vocal cadences or physical resemblance about Pekar’s wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner. She finds a morose intelligence and inherent empathy that goes a long way towards explaining her attraction to and endurance with Pekar. Judah Friedlander, on the other hand, is an uncanny mimic of self-proclaimed “ultimate nerd” Toby Radloff, absolutely vanishing into the part, a magic trick illuminated by the one moment in which he’s allowed to briefly break character. In every instance, the inclusion of the real figures serves as proof of the high quality of the acting.

American Splendor is as unlikely of a film as Pekar’s original stories were as comic book adventures. There’s no real hook, a resolutely dour protagonist and a storyline that wanders with something close to aimlessness. There’s also a rewarding tendency to find inspiration in the smallest, most unlikely things, and, finally, a tinge of hopefulness, or at least dented grace, lurking within the pessimism. It’s the sort of movie that Harvey Pekar deserves. And that’s high praise.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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