American Splendor Retro Talk; Grade: A-
Welcome to another edition of Retro Talk! Every now and then when it gets late, I put on a movie and watch for a half an hour to an hour, then finish it the following day. That was the plan set for this film... However this normal little routine got disrupted, by how great the film was. Where as I couldn’t turn it off till it was finished.
American Splendor was released at the end of summer 2003. Originally was supposed to be release on HBO, however they changed course as it gotten a theatrical release instead rightfully deserved. The film had a budget of two million dollars, as the film went on to receive eight million dollars at the box office... A six million dollar profit, I guess the risk was worth taking after all? The film went on to receive one Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, rightfully deserving so.
American Splendor tells a story of a local filing clerk in Ohio Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), whom recently got divorced as he’s not the happiest fellow you ever saw. Harvey has a common interest in collecting records and enjoys comics. Harvey gets acquainted with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), whom is a well known comic. Harvey wants to change the perspective of comics, shying away from the super hero world. As he would like to offer a series of comics, in which can be relatable to the reality of everyday life, more towards his own life. So Harvey quickly sketches out a few comic strips, as he shares with Crumb. Crumb likes his work as he even offers to illustrate his work, now making Harvey an instant hit in the comic world. Witness a man in which in comics brought people joy, while Harvey received some of the finer things in life. Including getting acquainted with his wife Joyce (Hope Davis), as well as a late night talk show guest legend on David Letterman.
American Splendor reminds me of many other works of art. I felt a Woody Allen vibe regarding the classical jazz music and the laid back comedy style. During the comic book art sequences, it reminded me of what Ang Lee was trying to accomplish with The Hulk. Ang Lee’s concept wasn’t entirely a terrible idea, but if he took notes from what this film did, as it kept itself contained where it didn’t feel overly obnoxious in the editing field... Surely it could’ve prevented itself from being a laughing stalk. But on the bright sides: Least The Hulk is somewhat memorable in that regard, it’s better to be remembered than it is to be forgotten, I always say. Couple other films come to mind including Ghost Town and of course 2018’s biographical drama film Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. This film happens to be the first narrative feature from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. This film left a great impression on critics and audiences, but more so Robert Ebert whom gave this a four star rating, calling it Plain Brilliant... Which is rare coming from his strict standards. To me I can understand why these directors haven’t made anywhere near the quality level of this film... It’s fantastic work of art, as it’s so far the best film I’ve watched during this entire quarantine.
American Splendor is a simply solid looking feature from a visual standpoint, with a great display of a composed score as well. It’s also followed by a GREAT all around cast, where almost every single casting choice was spot on, to the point where they can be identical twins. One of the coolest scenes is where Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander sitting aside, as the real people behind the characters they play, discuss testing Jelly Beans Flavors. One: It just shows just how accurate the actors are portraying these human beings on screen are. Two: It’s an oddly fascinating scene, as I was actually interested in what was the topic of interest, followed by the actors watching along the side line as well, it made me feel like I was in the room with them. Paul Giamatti was great as Harvey Pekar, a top notch worthy performance, as he captures every single character trait of this public figure. Harvey Pekar to me is an odd protagonist. Though he appears grumpy all the time, you can’t help but blame him and more so can relate to him. It’s been said Harvey not only a collector in music, he also calls himself a critic... Which I can relate to regarding film, as I collect time to time. Especially towards the one scene, where Harvey is standing in line at a grocery store, as he figured he found the quickest lane so he can pay and leave in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately for Harvey the woman in front of him, is causing problems for the employee and manager trying to save fifty cents... I can’t help but laugh because I’ve experience this situation done a thousand times. Harvey is just a regular guy, whom catches bad breaks every now and while working at a dead end job. We root for this grumpy man because life hasn’t always gave him the best. Throughout the film you only hope for happiness, as one can relate as to how life kicks us to the curb, as we try to find ways to make the best of it... Just like Harvey did with his comics. A well written and interesting character study.
Harvey is complimented with lovely supporting characters, that are funny and even so charming. Judah Friedlander playing Harvey’s co-worker Toby played a great performance. I feel anyone could adore the character Toby, as he has a sweet heart, whom has difficulty in finding acceptance in the world due to the fact he appears different from the rest. Adored the scene where Toby was willing to drive miles to see Revenge of the Nerds, a film that inspires this man in finally hearing a voice towards his kind... Kind of reminds me of my love for Forrest Gump as well as my willingness to travel to explore film. Hope Davis playing Harvey’s fling Joyce played a great performance as well, as I certainly enjoyed the odd ball chemistry these actors have. I found the introduction to this character to be completely unique, as it was actually kind of dope in such a completely odd way. I love how Joyce was Harvey’s rock through and through. Despite her never getting a job, at least Joyce was there for Harvey as far as emotional support, making Harvey a little bit content with his lifestyle. There are many more characters and performances I really enjoyed, but that would take a couple pages to cover, so to all the cast members... Pat yourselves on the back, lovely job by all of you.
One major complaint I have with American Splendor is I wish it was consistent with presentation. While I do enjoy the narration, as well as the film cutting to the real Harvey Pekar... I just wish it didn’t go in and out time to time. I felt this film would’ve received a rare A rating from me, if it was consistent with the style.
I can see myself rewatching American Splendor in the near future, as I absolutely loved this film. It’s one of those stories, where it’s oddly fascinating and inspiring as well. It kind of gives motivation towards the little guys, whom are dealing with the difficulties in life that this too shall pass. As long as you keep moving forward, while making an effort to work hard or find your true calling... You can earn a good life and receive a little happiness along the way. The film’s sense of reality and fiction was truly impressive, like it felt like I was inside of one of Harvey’s comics. Especially when we are shown the real Harvey interviews on the Late Night with Letterman show... It brings you back in the fact this is reality, even though it feels like this story feels created entirely upon imagination. A very well written script that makes us attached to these characters beginning to end. I think it’s the sense of relatability, as we can all feel the emotions inside of our lead character Harvey. Also the film offers a wide variety of comedy, drama, and of course hints of hand drawn animation like you’re in a comic strip. I do feel though how great of a film this is, as it got the recognition it rightfully deserves... I still feel it’s a bit under the radar. I know a couple film buffs whom haven’t seen this film, so hopefully in a time where we need a laugh, inspiration, or someone we can relate to going through the motions of life... That they seek out to a wonderful film like this work of art.
Overall, American Splendor is a fantastic work of art. I HIGHLY recommend checking this one out as soon as possible. Well Harvey Pekar your story really made me feel comfort inside, as I thank you so much for giving these film makers, the material to create a truly fantastic work of art. Wish you were still here giving us more reasons to laugh... Oh well Heaven is better than this world that’s for sure, take care my friend. -Mitch Smietana