ORDINARY LIFE IS PRETTY COMPLEX STUFF
Today, we again find ourselves in the land of the biographical film. Ordinarily, I’d try to deliver some kind of context from which the film can be discussed, considering the source of the material or what measures have been taken to fictionalise it in an effort to make a film with a traditional narrative strike. However, the source material in this case gets much of its strength from the lack of fictional pretence, its stance as a story borne not of imagination, but of reality. In the latter half of the 1970s, Harvey Pekar created a comic book of his own life, detailing his own struggles with the mundanity of everyday life. He called it American Splendor. The movie arrived in 2003.
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a file clerk at the local VA hospital. A collector of jazz records and a comic fan, he’s also lonely, morose and sees life as a constant uphill struggle. When his friend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) finds international success for his underground comics, Harvey decides to write his own brand of comic book, a typically unsentimental record of his own life. From his work, Pekar finds some level of fame and meets his soul mate, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis).
American Splendor’s opening scene pretty concisely tells you exactly what Pekar is like, and therefore the comic, and therefore the movie. Some kids are out trick-or-treating, and they've stopped at another house for their treat. The woman of the house comes forward, bowl of chocolatey goodness at the ready. Smiling, she looks down to the first boy, dressed as Superman, and gives him his treat. Likewise with the next three boys, dressed as Batman & Robin and Green Lantern. She comes to the last boy and stops. “Who are you supposed to be?” she asks. This is young Harvey Pekar. He’s not dressed as anyone. Just himself. The woman seems genuinely unsure how to proceed. He’s not dressed as a superhero like the other boys, so should she really give him anything? He makes the decision for her by dropping his bag and walking away, lamenting the idiocy of dressing up for a chocolate bar. He can’t relate other people too well. Even from a young age, Harvey Pekar was not someone to pretend he was someone else to make things easier. He’d rather be honestly himself than falsely someone else. Tone set.
As I said, American Splendor the Comic sets itself as being something that does not shy from the reality of existence. It doesn’t attempt to mythologise or sanitise. It simply presents the experiences of a working-class shlub with a cranky disposition and a less than firm hold on the notion of cleanliness. Given this central ideal, it feels appropriate that the filmmakers, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, have tried to adopt this same method during the process of making American Splendor the Film. Lines between reality and fiction are fudged so much, fourth walls so repeatedly broken that it’s almost like watching an experiment in post-modern living than a film, though that does sound much more pretentious than it actually is. The film plays almost as any other would for the most part, with the occasional narration from the real Pekar, who talks about how Paul Giamatti doesn’t look much like him. Then, every now and then, the film will leave the fictional portion of events and have a brief chat with the real Pekar, sitting in a white recording studio limbo, discussing how the film was made. “If you think reading comics about your life seems strange,” he tells us, “try watching a play about it. God only knows how I’ll feel when I see this movie.” Other moments of the fictional form of the narrative are scattered with drawings, such as when Movie Pekar is being harangued by an animated version of himself in a supermarket; or when the filming of a scene comes to a close, but the camera continues, shifting perspective on to Real Pekar and Real Toby as they discuss jelly beans, their corresponding actors sit in the background, reading or watching their counterparts behave; or when Movie Pekar addresses the camera directly, relating a form of existential worry about how many Harvey Pekars are actually out there, meanwhile the background is being drawn behind him. Even parts of the movie reality will feature moments from real reality, such as the numerous appearances of Real Pekar on The David Letterman Show. It’s quite a scope that Berman and Pulcini are working with. It may not necessarily be anything particularly new in the form (Last Action Hero actually sort of covered some of this same ground in 1993), but it’s all handled very well and really seems to have a root in genuine thought and consideration for the source material.
The cast assembled is excellent, headed by two of the most consistent actors going – Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Giamatti already has something of a foothold for these kind of characters, being that he isn’t exactly the best looking of guys (apologies, Mr. Giamatti) and seems to just effortlessly exude the kind of sadsack air of someone like Pekar. Naturally, he remains as superb as ever. Hope Davis, always so underrated, is equally superb. Really, why isn’t she better known? The rest of the cast is rounded out by quality, such as James Urbaniak’s Robert Crumb and Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff, someone you’d be convinced doesn’t actually exist until you actually see him and understand just how good Friedlander captures the character.
I have to confess that, whilst I do like the film and appreciate it very much, I am left a little cold by it, though I seem to be at something of a loss as to why. It could be because this is actually the first time I have seen the film, and so I had eight years of people telling me how great it was slowly building it up, but I don’t think that’s the case. Whilst many people did tell me their fondness for the film, it hardly amounted to a crushing weight that no film could stand up to. Plus, it’s been a while since anyone mentioned the film to me, so whatever pressure there may have been had certainly eased off.
Maybe part of my problem with the final product is that, for all of the cleverness of the direction, the shifting of narrative focus, the mixing of formats, the way genre is bent, even broken, by the end of the film, there’s no great epiphany at the end that justifies all the filmic trickery. It might be that for all of the effort that has gone into this film, I expected more of a final payoff than I got. Then again, doing this would just feel false. Indeed, in the film, Pekar decries happy endings and stuff that feels disingenuous for the sake of emotional catharsis and other “Hollywood bullshit.” Life isn’t really like that.
I think perhaps the thing that makes me feel, not let down as such, but less moved than I should be is that the structure of the film occasionally gets in the way somehow. Now, I really like the concept of the whole thing, blending real reality and fictional reality and artistic renderings of reality. It’s very clever and very interesting. However, I often felt that just as I was starting to get into the story and the characters, the direction would shift to another reality and the illusion would be broken. This is clearly the intention here. They don’t want you to forget that this is all a pretend version of a reality long since passed. They don’t want you to get comfortable with the falsehood. However, there are aspects of the story that the film is actually trying to tell that become compromised by this intention. Some of the sequence where Harvey is treated for testicular cancer gets rather glossed over, in favour of drawn images showing him at various stages of fatigue, along with the occasional fictional shot. I’m sure that this packs much more of a punch in the graphic novel, which served as a partial basis for the film, but the way it’s handled here, the way the medium bends itself, makes it feel a little distant, harder to fully connect to. At least, that’s how I felt.
However, this is all my problem. Likely I’ll watch this again at some point down the line and feel a much greater appreciation for the message, the tone, these characters, their lives. That I didn’t find myself similarly enraptured like so many others is perhaps more of a reflection on myself… or maybe everyone else is wrong.
Despite my problem with the direction, American Splendor is still worth the watch, if for no other reason than to introduce yourself to the world of Harvey Pekar. There are fine performances on show and the manner in which the project is shaped makes for a very interesting watch. Don’t be too letdown if it didn’t grab you the first time. Maybe allow it a second viewing. It deserves the benefit of the doubt.