Movies / Home Theatre

American Splendor

By Christine Pointeau
March 27, 2007 - 20:41

Writer, Director: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini  
Producer: Ted Hope
Starring: Paul Giamatti ( Harvey), Hope Davis (Joyce),
James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Madylin Sweeten (Danielle)
As themselves: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Danielle.
101 mn Drama 2003

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff!"     

Every once in a while, a little gem falls into my lap through no doing of my own. Such is the case with American Splendor, a loan from my brother’s library. Now hold on, I know what you are thinking… “Harvey Pekar!... American Splendor!... What did you expect!?!”

I admit, when I saw the non-ending list of awards and nomination, I thought to myself, wow, who, besides myself, has not have heard of this already? Upon reflection, I decided that somewhere out there, I can help someone out of ignorance by bringing it back to light, and so to all of us non-initiated into the American Splendor phenomenon, I say, rent it, get it, borrow it -anything short of stealing it- just watch it. And while you’re at it, look up the comics.

This is the story of Harvey Pekar, a file clerk at the local V.A. hospital in Cleveland. He embodies the common folk, the low down blue collar worker, the everyday man. Harvey goes through life in a state of permanent discontentment. He is grumpy, miserable, finds irritations at every corner, and has major issues with dirty dishes and cleaning house. To top it all, his second wife has just left him. Paul Giamatti inhabits the part from head to toe, convincingly getting the overall other-worldliness of the real Harvey.

Don’t let all that fool you though. Underneath it all, Harvey is really a loveable character.

Harvey has a fondness for old LP recordings and garage sales. At one of these, he meets Robert Crumb, then in his early career. Inspired by Crumb’s success, Harvey starts writing about what fills his life: everyday encounters, frustrations, conversations with co-workers, insights, jelly beans and other ponderings. No subject is left untouched or deemed taboo. The first of these comics is illustrated by Robert Crumb, thus launching the autobiographical American Splendor in 1976. Being a part of Harvey’s entourage means ending up on paper sooner or later. His coworkers in fact take it as a matter of personal pride to find themselves as a character in the next issue.

We soon meet Joyce, played by Hoe Davis, a partner in a comic book store and avid fan of American Splendor.  Davis’ Joyce is alternatively strong and vulnerable,insecure and determined, a fitting balance to Giamatti’s Harvey.  Through a series of letters and phone conversations the two finally meet -and that’s all it takes. Harvey’s first words to Joyce: “I’ve had a vasectomy.” Joyce’s contribution is that everyone in her family has a degenerative disease. They are perfect for each other, soul mates, a match made in heaven, an odd couple complementing each other’s idiosyncrasies.   

When they discover Harvey’s lymphoma cancer in 1990, Joyce pushes him to relate his experience in comic book format to help him through. Together they create “Our Cancer Year,” published in 1994 and illustrated by Frank Stack. This experience also brought a new addition into couple’s lives in the form of Danielle. Through it all, Harvey and Joyce end up with the perfect little American family portrait.

This movie is a well crafted combination of movie characters, real life Harvey, Joyce, Danielle and others through part documentary part interview sequences, along with comic bubbles, characters, and notes appearing here and there. All aspects flow smoothly in and out, weaved by a master hand, creating a whimsical aspect to the movie unlike anything I had ever seen before. Included are the memorable David Letterman Show appearances with the “real” Harvey and some of the subsequent madness that ensues.

The real Joyce Brabner & Harvey Pekar
American Splendor –the comic- received the American Book Award in 1987.

Most famous line: “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

Upon first meeting Joyce: “I’ve had a vasectomy.”

This movie has gotten more awards and nominations than would fit in this space.

A few among the many:

Sundance International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize

Cannes International Film Festival Fipresci Award

International Film Critics Association Award

Named Best Picture of 2003 by the American’s National Society of Film Critic

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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