American Splendor (2003) directed by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

American Splendor is an unconventional movie. It is partly a documentary with real-life people playing themselves and partly actors playing the same people. It is the story of Harvey Pekar, a supposedly uninteresting nerdy guy who becomes a celebrated comic writer whom everyone wants to know. The film narrates Harvey's life from when he was an ordinary filing clerk to coming up with his comic style, through becoming a successful artist (always keeping his day job) and into his retirement.

Seeing American Splendor makes me want to read all the original comic books. I am not usually into comics, but the fact that Pekar wrote his autobiography out in comic form is fascinating because it's the story of an anti-hero. The comics narrate his cancer year and introduce the readers to Pekar's peculiar wife, as well as his workmates and friends. Everyone is curious, no one is a cape wearing hero or a Hollywood cut-out doll.

The scary thing about American Splendor is that I saw so many familiar things on screen. The obsessive vinyl collecting, the-third-time-lucky approach to marriage, the worn out parka, the besserwisser attitude, the comical negativity, the non-interest and unwillingness to peek outside one's box...I am with a man who has some of those characteristics (and some great ones that Harvey obviously lacks!). I also saw myself in the unglamorous wife with her huge glasses and dead-pan face. You know, it's so much easier to see yourself in a movie like American Splendor rather than in Notting Hill for example. Nerdy people going through their muddled lives are so much more interesting to watch than rich actresses with attachment issues and too much time on their hands.

I've just visited without doubt the most expensive place on earth: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Oslo. I was briefly in the Norwegian capitol last year, but this time a few days was enough to get a feel for the city. I like Oslo a lot (great architecture combined with a relaxed vibe) but the discrepancies between the Norwegian kronor and other currencies means that every visitor of modest means feels the pinch. Having just watched American Splendour prior to my visit, I did wonder what Harvey Pekar would have made of it. Probably complained a lot more than most people did that I encountered on the trip. I guess I see quite a bit of myself in Harvey when I watched American Splendour, so maybe I really knew how he would have reacted.

American Splendour has been on my radar since its release, but for some reason it's taken me 10 years to see this. Rather like Ghost World it's one of the better comic adaptations going. I don't know much about the American Splendour series other than the great and truly eccentric Robert Crumb illustrated the early editions of the comic. What this movie does so well is present the story of how Harvey Pekar became a phenomena not just in the comics world but to the public at large. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini combine the real life characters of the movie ( Pekar, his wife, work colleagues) with the actors playing them (both Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce excel as the dysfunctional leads) and the story of Pekar's life played out on the comic book page, in a movie scripted by Pekar himself (with some others), creating the effect that life imitates life, imitating real life etc. Got it?

Pekar does not soften his own miserable and nihilistic personality whatsoever for his on-screen persona.  He is often cruel about his wife too, which sometimes unexpectedly makes American Splendour very funny – the film's humor is never obvious but is still capabel of the odd laugh-out-loud moment. These characters should be losers but despite themselves they find happiness amongst the various disorders. And it's possible that we all see a bit of ourselves in Harvey Pekar's world – that's why so many people spent some time there via his comics. Do yourself a favor if you've missed this, track it down. Me? I'm going to find the comics and devour.


  1. This film made me aware that what is bitter in life can by some strange magic become wonderful as art.

    What alchemy is in us!


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