American Splendor


Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Written by:Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Hervey Pekar
Released: September 11, 2003
Grade: A-

In 1966, Harvey Pekar began work as a file clerk at a hospital in Cleveland.  After thirty-five years of the same monotonous work, he retired in 2001.  It’s the kind of story that was made to be told in a movie, right?  Well there’s a lot more to Hervey Pekar and he is a cult hero to many around the world.

Tired of the same comic books, Hervey decided to write his own in 1976.  He wasn’t an artist but knew the story he wanted to tell.  Leading animator and friend Robert Crumb read Hervey’s work, put ink to paper and published the first edition of American Splendor.  A new edition has been published every year since and Pekar’s work has found universal appeal.

His comics aren’t about superheros.  Rather, it’s about himself and all the frivolous dramas and problems he faces in his average day.  Hervey’s a negative guy and always manages to find a negative in every positive.  Having not read one of his comics myself, I can only presume his popularity comes from telling it as it is.  He’s an early day Jerry Seinfeld only much darker.

Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini wanted to bring Pekar’s story to the screen and have found an incredibly inventive way to tell it.  In the film, Pekar is played by great actor Paul Giamatti.  However, this is not just an adaptation, it’s also a documentary.  The real Harry Pekar narrates the film and appears on screen from time to time to explain situations.  Further, the directors incorporate the comic books themselves into the film by having some scenes which are simple animation.  There’s even more in store because some archived footage of the real Hervey back in the 80s is also used to help tell the story.  So if you can comprehend all of that, you’ll understand the film stars the real Hervey, the real Harvey 20 years ago, an actor playing Hervey, and an animated version of Hervey.

This originality has not gone unnoticed.  The film won a special prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and also won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival.  Hopefully this attention will help the movie reach a wide audience.  The early buzz is pushing Giamatti for a best actor nomination and I’d be thrilled to see it.  He’s an underrated actor I’ve always admired for roles in films such as Man On The Moon and Planet Of The Apes but this is a career defining roles.  Pekar is not an attractive character but he’s certainly very interesting.

The film covers much of his life.  From his pathetic filing job to his numerous appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman.  From his search for love to his battles with cancer.  Pekar is still alive today and his stories will continue to be told through his now famous American Splendor comics.  Only from now on, an even bigger audience is watching thanks to the production of this film.  Do see it, if only for something different.  You won’t be disappointed.