Wednesday, July 02, 2014

American Splendor

Based on the comic series by Harvey Pekar and the graphic novel Our Cancer Year by Pekar and Joyce Brabner, American Splendor is the story of comic book writer Harvey Pekar who would create a comic book based on his own misery as he would become sort of famous while struggling with depression and such. Written for the screen and directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the film is a mixture of documentary and dramatization as the real Pekar and Brabner appear in the film, along with Pekar’s friend Toby Radloff, while they’re respectively played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Also starring Judah Friedlander and James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb. American Splendor is an imaginative yet captivating film about the life of Harvey Pekar.

Through his American Splendor comics that he would write, Harvey Pekar would gain fame writing about his own miserable life in his hometown of Cleveland as he would become a cult figure and make appearances on David Letterman’s talk show during the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, the film is told in a very unconventional style where it plays into dramatized versions of Pekar’s life as he endures his dissolution of his second marriage and finding inspiration to write his comic with the help of Robert Crumb’s illustration that would also lead him to meet and marry his longtime partner Joyce Brabner. The film also is told in a documentary fashion where the real Pekar and Brabner are interviewed as the film would also incorporate archival footage of Pekar’s appearances on David Letterman’s show plus a MTV news footage of Toby Radloff preparing for Spring Break as he is seen as a goofball.

The film’s screenplay showcases much of Pekar’s misery early in his life as he spends much of his time working as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital whenever he’s not writing. Yet, it would feature moments that would eventually motivate Pekar into becoming a writer as the first act revealed how he met Robert Crumb while the second act is about how he met Joyce Brabner through corresponding letters as she was asking for an issue of one of his comics. Pekar and Brabner’s relationship is one of the aspects of the story that makes interesting as their marriage would eventually become material of its own where the third act is about the making of Our Cancer Year when Pekar was suffering from cancer in the early 1990s as it would give the duo rave reviews as well as a new lease on life despite Pekar’s on-going encounter with misery and Joyce’s refusal to work as well as analyzing people about their neuroses.

The direction of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman is quite abstract not just in its offbeat presentation but also in how they approach the story. Much of the dramatization portion of the film is shot on location in Cleveland where it focuses largely on intimate compositions from close-ups and medium shots along with unique camera angles to play into Pekar’s life and his relationship with Brabner. There’s even moments in the dramatization where Brabner watches the real-life footage of Pekar on David Letterman through his many appearances with the exception of his final appearance on the show which is presented in a dramatic context due to the controversy that Pekar would create that eventually kicked him out of the show for good. Some of the direction infuses some animation by John Kuramato that sort of breaks down the fourth wall as it would often motivate Pekar or play into what Joyce would see upon meeting Pekar for the first time.

The documentary portion of the film is shot in a soundstage where the real life Pekar, Brabner, and Radloff show up while the actors would play them would be in the background. There’s some interviews in the film to play into Pekar and Brabner’s commentary on their own marriage plus Radloff embracing his role as a nerd. With Pulcini as the film’s editor, he uses a lot of archival news footage as well as Pekar’s appearances on David Letterman to great use along with montages about how his stories in his comics would mirror his own real life. Much of the editing is stylized yet the direction remains very intact to play into Pekar’s world and his struggles with depression and cancer where it ends unconventionally but also with tenderness that showcased how far Pekar has gone into becoming a celebrated figure in American literature. Overall, Pulcini and Berman craft a very lively and whimsical portrait of a writer who creates art through his own misery.

Cinematographer Terry Stacey does amazing work with the film’s cinematography from the way it captures some of the realism of the locations in Cleveland to some of the lighting in some of its interiors for the scenes at the New York City hotels that Joyce and Harvey stayed during his David Letterman appearances. Production designer Therese DePrez and set decorator Robert DeSue do fantastic work with the set pieces from the messy home of Harvey Pekar as well as file-hall where he does much of his work. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson does nice work with the costumes as it‘s very low-key and drab to play into the personalities of Pekar and Brabner.

Sound editor Nicholas Renbeck does terrific work with the sound from some of the sound collages in some of the images in Pekar‘s comics as well as some of the sound effects. The film’s music by Mark Suozzo is brilliant as it low-key in its emphasis on Americana with folk and jazz while music supervisor Linda Cohen brings in a fun soundtrack filled with jazz, rock, and pop music to play into the different time periods that Pekar lived in his life.

The casting by Ann Goulder is great as it features appearances from the real Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff, and Pekar/Brabner’s adopted daughter Danielle Batone plus cameos from Donal Logue and Molly Shannon as stage versions of Harvey and Joyce, respectively. Other notable small roles include Daniel Tay as a young Harvey Pekar, Earl Billings as Pekar’s hospital boss Mr. Boats, Maggie Moore as an old classmate that Harvey runs into, Vivienne Benesch as his second ex-wife, and Madilyn Sweeten as the young Danielle whom Harvey and Joyce would befriend during the making of Our Cancer Year. James Urbaniak is excellent as the famed comic illustrator Robert Crumb where Urbaniak brings a low-key approach to his role as someone with an odd sense of humor. Judah Friedlander is amazing as the nerdy Toby Radloff who always like to do nerdy things and spend part of his time eating jellybeans, White Castle burgers, and embracing his role as a nerd.

Hope Davis is phenomenal as Joyce Brabner as she brings this character full of frustrations and low expectations while often analyzing people and describe their neuroses as it’s one of Davis’ dazzling performances. Finally, there’s Paul Giamatti in an outstanding performance as Harvey Pekar as it is a performance that provides a lot of laughs as well as anguish where Giamatti brings that sense of misery and despair that makes the character so engaging while also showcasing some offbeat humor as it’s Giamatti in one of his greatest roles ever.

American Splendor is a magnificent film from Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. Armed with the great performances of Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis along with its unconventional presentation between documentary and dramatization. It’s a film that explores the world of one of the great writers of American comics without the need to go into any kind of convention while being humorous and heartwarming. In the end, American Splendor is a tremendously rich film from Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman Films: (Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s) - (Wanderlust (2006 film)) - The Nanny Diaries - (The Extra Man) - (Cinema Verite) - (Girl Most Likely) - (Ten Thousand Saints)

© thevoid99 2014


Dell said...

This movie is a true gem. I just love that it's so abstract and quirky, yet still works as a coherent narrative. Davis is amazing and this is some of Giamatti's best work. Great review.

thevoid99 said...

Thanks. It's a film that has a special place in my heart where I saw it at the Tara 4 near Buckhead at a massive screening and certainly one of the best as it was greeted with applause at the end of the film.

ruth said...

I love Paul Giamatti, he's always good in everything. I didn't know this was based on a true story, makes it all the more intriguing then.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It's really a one-of-a-kind film that I think everyone should see. It's certainly one of my favorite bio-pics.

Chris said...

Agree Giamatti was well cast. I discovered the comics because of the movie, and enjoyed both. I'm sure the film boosted the sales of his comics.
I'm happy the film got made before Pekar died in 2010,so he could enjoy it a bit, and he even got to be in his own movie :)

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-I was relieved to learn that Pekar did find some happiness after the film's release as it is truly a film that everyone must see.

Unknown said...

This ranks right up there with SIDEWAYS as my fave performances by Giamatti. So well cast in this film and it is easily one of the best comic book adaptation put to film.

This film really hits all the right notes - it's funny, poignant, sad, but ultimately life-affirming in a way that isn't sappy.

thevoid99 said...

@J.D. Lafrance-It's truly one of the great American films of the last 15 years and it needs to be seen more by a wide audience about what a bio-pic should be.