Have you seen Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (freaky doc about underground comic artist R. Crumb) and Ghost World (based on the underground-ish graphic novel by Daniel Clowes)? Well, I'm no comic book expert, but I kept thinking of those two notable flicks as I beheld American Splendor, one of the most inventive films of 2003.
'Tis the story of Harvey Pekar, the real-life star of his autobiographical American Splendor comics. The film is the work of regular documentary collaborators Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (Off the Menu, The Young and the Dead), and is their first crack at directing a fiction piece. It won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance this year, and is a gloriously unique piece of cinema, blending a great performance by Paul Giamatti (who makes up for annoying the shit outta me in Storytelling and Confidence) with commentary and narrative by the real-life Pekar, cameos by associates, archival footage of Pekar's frequent 80s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, and animated sequences inspired by the comics. And it's all set to a jazzy soundtrack featuring the likes of Coltrane and Gillespie.
Sounds like a muddled mishmash? A preposterous potpourri? Well, it is. And it's splendid. Seeing Pekar actually interact with the actors who play him and his friends is a truly postmodern treat. And the film, like Ghost World, is structured like the comic books at its core, completely immersing you in the subject's life and worldview (which themselves constitute a weird mix): cantankerous working-class intellectual, obsessive collector, hospital file clerk, Cleveland devotee, orange soda enthusiast, neurotic cult artist. A regular biopic just wouldn't do.
And did I mention that fabulous Hope Davis is part of it all? She plays oddball Joyce Brabner, Pekar's chronic-depressive alter-ego, a Delaware comic-store owner who writes Harvey a veiled fan letter and soon finds herself married to him. (When asked whether she has reservations about moving to Cleveland, she replies, "I find most American cities to be depressing in the same way." You said it sistah.) Davis sparkles as always, and Brabner herself appears in filmed interviews. In one brilliant scene the fictionalized Harvey and Joyce actually watch a community-theatre production based on the comic-book version of their lives — with a hilarious cameo by Molly Shannon as Stage Joyce! Told you it was postmodern.
And appropriately so. One needs several illustrative layers to get a sense of Harvey Pekar's wacky existence, and this effervescent movie delivers the goods. Like the life of its subject, American Splendor is an electrifying mélange.