NEVER SEEN IT: American Splendor

poster-11

BY JES ELLACOTT

Date released: September 12, 2003

Date watched: July 9, 2013

Why now? I’ve generally been a fan of directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman but for one reason or another American Splendor escaped my notice. I am now pursuing a more active interest in documentary filmmaking, and I was curious about how this unique biopic was approached.

Why not then? In 2003 I was significantly more invested in the works of David Lynch, as any aspiring, pretentious, 16-year-old filmmaker worth their salt was.

Expectations:

  • Some slightly kitschy but very entertaining storytelling devices
  • A mildly successful attempt to portray real people with Hollywood actors, which would inevitably come across as slightly condescending to the real-deal
  • A bleak critique of the myth of the American Dream.

What I actually got:

  • The storytelling devices used in American Splendor were spot-on. I suppose this is the upside of having your main character as one of the lead writers. The real Harvey Pekar gave his voice (both through the script and his actual voice as narrator) to the biopic in an incredibly unique way. American Splendor flawlessly blends re-enactments with historical footage and documentary-style interviews. In another forum this may have been jarring—at some points we even see actor Paul Giamatti beside Harvey Pekar onscreen—but in this iteration it just works.
  • I have only good things to say about the casting here. Paul Giamatti was pretty spot-on as Pekar, even getting his iconic raspy voice down pat. To their credit, Pulcini and Berman certainly didn’t try to dress up their characters and locations, which is so common in biopics. This was Cleveland in the late 1970s and 1980s after all. There was nothing pretty about it. The casting choice that especially stood out for me was Judah Friedlander as self-proclaimed Genuine Nerd Toby Radloff. Friedlander captures Radloff’s eccentricity perfectly. So much so, that in a few scenes where historic footage of the real Toby is used, it took me a moment too long to realize who was who.
  • In American Splendor the bleakness and crushing “realness” that is inherent in all of Pekar’s work is undercut by the fact that, here’s the man himself, making a film about his life’s work. Even though the viewer is consistently left feeling like success for Pekar hasn’t quite happened yet (it’s just around the corner!), Pekar obviously saw some measure of accomplishment in his career. Couple that with the honesty of the script and the interviews with Pekar himself, and you get a rather pithy and funny film. The filmmakers do a great job of mirroring the humor and tone of Pekar’s comics. They beautifully capture the idea that real life can be funny and mundane and exciting all at once, and that all stories are worth telling.

One night-in stand or second date potential? This is a film I can imagine watching again and again, after reading more about the life of Harvey Pekar. When I watched it the first time, I was rather ignorant of the man and his work. Having done some research, I can see how American Splendor might gain increasing depth simply based on the amount of Pekar-adjacent media consumed by the viewer. On my first watch I was totally unaware that Pekar died in July of 2010 from an accidental antidepressant overdose. Knowing this now would bring a significantly different feel to the film, and I look forward to round two—although I’ll be sure to keep a box of tissues handy this time ‘round.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g19nAE_ihp0]

jesJes Ellacott is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker. She loves cupcakes and dinosaurs and spends way too much time checking out Doctor Who memes on imgur. Follow her on Twitter @jes_e!

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