I don’t quite know what I expected when I settled in to watch this first quasi-narrative film from husband-wife documentary team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. I knew I was slightly apprehensive — and even a little resentful — at the thought of being subjected to yet another smug, post-modernist essay delineating the quirks, tics and charms of characters from the lower depths.
And at first glance, that looked like exactly what was being served up in American Splendor‘s oh-so-clever opening and jazz score, both hinting that I was about to be subjected to something so in love with its own hipness that I’d want to run screaming to the blandest, most-formula-driven, Hollywood-processed-cheese-food movie I could find. But as the film progressed, it slowly mutated into something else — something hard to define but grounded in a true sense of admiration and respect for its subject.
Nailing the appeal of American Splendor is as difficult as pigeonholing it into a genre. Is it a biopic? Well, yes, to the degree that it boasts a narrative with actors detailing the life of Veterans Administration file clerk, comic-book writer, record collector and self-confessed schlub Harvey Pekar. Or at least it boasts a narrative based on that life as depicted in a series of comic books (American Splendor and Our Cancer Year) by Pekar and various other artists, including the legendary Robert Crumb (played to perfection by James Ubraniak).
Is it a documentary? Well, yes, it’s that, too; it presents footage of the real Harvey Pekar and the people in his life, but it does so in an unusual way that allows the reality to intrude on the narrative — sometimes supporting it, sometimes undermining its exact truthfulness.
Does the combination of approaches arrive at a greater truth than either method could achieve on its own? Probably not. This pairing merely adds another level on which to consider the material, and that’s not even unique in biographical filmmaking, the best of which has always been informed by both the narrative and the filmmaker’s reaction to the subject. What is unique is the method of presentation, which glides effortlessly in and out of drama and documentary in a manner that is nearly breathtaking — and sometimes unreservedly brilliant.
When Paul Giamatti as the narrative’s Harvey walks onto the stage of David Letterman’s show in one shot and the real Harvey takes over when the movie cuts to archival footage, the line between fictionalized fact and fact itself is almost completely blurred. This is handled with beautiful simplicity, and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When the narrative’s Harvey attends a play depicting his life and the real Harvey comments on the strangeness of seeing his life being played out on the stage, the film suddenly offers three levels of reality at once (and four if you count the spectral presence of the comic book always lurking around the edges — eat your heart out, Berthold Brecht!).
This film’s startling accomplishment, though, isn’t so much its multiple layers but the fact that you aren’t repeatedly yanked out of the story to admire the cleverness of American Splendor‘s construction; the film just feels right. This is both the key to it, as well as what sets it apart from the self-conscious condescension that mars the not wholly dissimilar Ghost World. Plus, the main character, Harvey, removes any trace of smugness when he comes up with the idea of viewing himself in the mirror, and then what he sees is, in his words, a “reliable disappointment.” Or maybe it’s just that Harvey is a deliberate underachiever who nonetheless achieves something — he’s hardly that “every poor slob” persona once he turns his life into a comic book chronicling the everyday strangeness of just being alive.
Finally, the film succeeds because Harvey actually has a life with much, much more to offer than the comics themselves could hope to encompass; this is the film’s positive emotional core. The only thing that works against American Splendor is that its penultimate act detailing Harvey’s bout with cancer bogs things down and threatens to turn the film maudlin, briefly losing sight of the off-center observations that keep the rest of American Splendor afloat, and threatening to make the movie outstay its welcome.
However, American Splendor makes up for that lapse in the end, becoming one very audacious accomplishment. It’s funny without being mean-spirited, moving without being manipulative, and honest without couching its truthfulness in sentimentality (when Harvey complains to Bob Crumb that Crumb’s life is still better than his own since Crumb can make a living doing what he likes, Crumb offers no comfort, only a matter of fact, “That’s true”).
This film is very much worth your time.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke