American Splendor (2003) – this week’s best movie on TV

June 25, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Drink a load of caffeine, or set your Sky+ – Paul Giamatti’s leading-man breakthrough, American Splendor, is on Channel 4, early Sunday 26th June at 1:55am.

Hindsight is an amazing thing.  I wrote this after first seeing the film in January 2004.  Now Giamatti is a genuine indie star – there’ll be no confusing him with Rob Schneider in the future!

By coincidence, Giamatti’s latest starring role, Win Win, is the subject of a film introduction I’m giving at Derby QUAD this Wednesday, 29th June at 8:45pm.  See you there.

american splendor Paul Giamatti

American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman / Robert Pulcini, US, 2003)

Harvey Pekar’s life, or at least several versions of it, as his ‘real life comic book’ becomes a dizzy blend of drama and documentary.

The success of the comic-book adaptation has resulted the curious side-effect of bringing underground comics to the big screen, a sub-genre of anti-blockblusters whose heroes are less likely to be caught wearing their underpants over their trousers, than not wearing any trousers at all. American Splendor is an intriguing addition to this sub-genre, neither documentary like Crumb nor, quite, straight fiction a la Ghost World, but a formally challenging hybrid that suits perfectly Pekar’s subject of a normal guy turning his own mundane life into art.

Despite its veneer of studied indie-ness (the tangential structure, the concentration on quiet character interaction, the presence of Hope Davis), the film is actually a complex study of the art of reality. Berman and Pulcini are asking the question implicit in Pekar’s belief that ‘American Splendor’ is the truth: how can any artform, with its codes and stylistic procedures, convey the full complexity of real life? During the film we see Pekar’s life in a variety of styles – comic book, biopic, stage play, TV victim, documentary – and we’re left to decide which, if any, presents the fullest flavour of its subject.

There’s a beguiling formal imagination at work here, where a fictional scene will segue to a conversation between the real people, whilst their ‘on-screen’ alter-egos sit behind them. When Harvey and Joyce visit the David Letterman Show, the filmmakers make a bold but revealing decision to interact genuine footage from the 1980s, with the result that “Pekar” walks out of one shot as actor Paul Giamatti and into the next as himself, breaking the filmic convention of restaging the event with actors (which, several scenes later, is exactly what the film then proceeds to do).

american splendor Paul Giamatti Hope Davis

American Splendour‘s hero Harvey Pekar is a nerd-friendly variation on that archetypal cinematic loser, Travis Bickle…”

Such self-conscious trickery adds substance to a storyline that might otherwise struggle with the perilous thin line that separates showing boredom and inducing it. For the first half hour, in particular, nothing much happens beyond Pekar grumpily wandering the streets, a nerd-friendly variation on that archetypal cinematic loser, Travis Bickle (and there’s something in the tone of the voiceover, and the repeated use of jump cuts, that suggests Taxi Driver was intentionally a model). It’s only with the arrival – into the film and Pekar’s life alike – of romantic interest and fellow misanthrope Joyce, that the story settles into its laidback, whimsical groove.

The film’s off-kilter charm is helped no end by the masterstroke of casting Paul Giamatti. For years, I had unknowingly been watching him and wondering, mistakenly, why the Rob Schneider who made such an impact in supporting roles could be so lame in star vehicles like Deuce Bigelow. Of course, it was Giamatti, and something of his selfless anonymity settles on his portrayal of Pekar. Itchy and irritable, Pekar is the kind of character who doesn’t – some fools would say, shouldn’t – have a film made about him: and Giamatti is the kind of actor who doesn’t get starring roles.

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