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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 40%
Average: 12.73%
Pretty Bad: 1.82%
Total Crap: 3.64%

5 reviews, 25 user ratings

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American Splendor
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by Brian McKay

"A semi-creative biography about someone I couldn't give two shits about."
3 stars

"Who the fuck is Harvey Pekar?" is a question that 98 percent of the people looking over the box synopsis of AMERICAN SPLENDOR at their local video store are likely to ask themselves. Two hours later, you will know who Harvey Pekar is . . . but will you really care?

Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is the author of a series of comic books known as American Splendor, which he originally created in the 60's with illustrator and indie comic book scene legend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak). Later drawn by a succession of other illustrators, the series became a cult underground favorite, and even got Pekar a recurring gig on the Letterman show - until he blew it by flying off the handle with a rambling tirade. Based on Pekar's own life, the comics paint the portrait of one sad sack of a man.

Pekar's not particularly handsome, and he has a voice that sounds like a rusty nail on a filthy chalkboard, as heard through sandpaper earmuffs. He works (and loathes) his dead-end job as a file clerk, and hides from his loneliness by collecting old records (much like Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World, who perhaps was inspired by Pekar, but was much more interesting). He walks around with the kind of downtrodden yet belligerent attitude that can suck the joy right out of a room, but wonders why his last two marriages ended in disaster. His best friend at work, Toby (Judah Friedlander), is borderline-retarded and thinks that Revenge of the Nerds is the finest piece of cinema ever created. He also provides most of the few bright spots in this wandering, sullen, and occasionally ham-fisted narrative.

Mixing in footage and interviews of the real Harvey Pekar with dramatized sequences of his celluloid counterpart, American Splendor appropriately segues between acts with comic book style storytelling. Beginning with Pekar's collaboration with Crumb, it traces the evolution of the series, his whirlwind marriage to third wife, Joyce (Hope Davis), and his battle with testicular cancer.

The only problem was, I just didn't care. Which is disappointing since I'm a big admirer of both Giamatti and Davis' earlier work. While at first Harvey's life serves to make you feel a bit better about your own, his grating personality and shallow pseudo-philosophizing grow tiresome well before the punishing third act. The attempt at an almost Shakespearean soliloquy during his battle with cancer falls particularly flat, as he muses on whether his character will continue after he has passed on.

Since the character is as bland and morose as the man who inspired it, it's hard to give a damn either way. Harvey Pekar doesn't seem like a bad guy, despite some grating personality traits, but he's just not a particularly interesting one either. Although both the real Pekar, and Giamatti's excellent rendition of him, provide some scattered laughs, there just isn't much dramatic impetus. I wanted to like the guy, and feel bad for him, but after watching him bitch about his job, yet remain there for 30 years, I am left with the impression that the guy is content to wallow in his discontent, rather than do much to try and change it. While Giamatti and Davis are both fine in their roles, there just isn't much meat on those roles to work with. They are playing characters based on real people who you would most likely beg off from talking to thirty seconds after making their acquaintance . The most enjoyable moments of American Splendor are those featuring Toby - both the dramatized version (who you think is pure characterization) and the real deal (and holy Jesus, he really is just like that in real life!). Hell, I almost wish they'd made the movie about him and called it Toby and Me. It would have been stretched just as thin in the end, but it would have been less tedious to sit through.

Although Pekar finds a few bright spots in the end, I was left without the slightest interest in ever hearing his name again or reading an issue of his comic book. Pekar's then-revolutionary approach to real-world storytelling in comic book form may be a novel one, but I'll stick to comic books full of superheroes in tights, people with big Samurai swords, or funny talking animals.

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originally posted: 04/25/04 04:41:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/26/09 Loren This movie deserves review by intellectuals, not this guy 5 stars
3/27/07 fools♫gold Giamatti's greatest; a masterpiece because of how stereotypically people rate it! 5 stars
7/23/05 Bad Critic Giamatti is great, just like in Sideways! (See Sideways, it's good, even better!) 5 stars
5/08/05 Valerie kind of boring 2 stars
3/25/05 indrid cold I guess it's supposed to be hip and ironic, but it's just boring. 3 stars
10/23/04 ODH Funny and intelligent movie, Toby chewing food is worth the price of admission!!! 5 stars
9/26/04 VIctor If I want to be bored, I'll film my life for the past six months. 1 stars
8/16/04 Peter James Intelligent and hilarious and Paul Giamatti plays the part perfectly 5 stars
6/13/04 DM A sweet, hilarious film that does justice to an excellent comic book 5 stars
6/11/04 T. Maj Unpatronizing ode to "average joes" 4 stars
5/05/04 A F Just Average. Just Average. 4 stars
4/26/04 Denise Duspiva the most boring movie ever about boring people 1 stars
4/20/04 tatum Great sleeper 5 stars
2/29/04 jimmy two times Giametti should've got an oscar nod. Funny as hell and heart warming. 5 stars
2/25/04 Kris original, intelligent, memorable and ultimately uplifting 5 stars
2/05/04 George Jung Solid, creative film. 4 stars
11/05/03 katsat The most original, creative and interesting movie I've seen in years. 5 stars
10/11/03 john great, just loved it...reality and humor 5 stars
9/24/03 Blubberbot A great movie. This web site used to be good. It kind of sucks now. 5 stars
9/22/03 katsat One of the most original, unque, fresh, and interesting movies I've seen in a long time 5 stars
9/13/03 Metal Bertrand Hilarious and also highly dramatic, with perfect performances and boundless creativity. A+ 5 stars
9/12/03 Butterbean Good and innovative. It feels long. I wanted to slap Pekar. 4 stars
9/05/03 Heather Good acting, no doubt the Ghost World fans will see it 5 stars
9/03/03 King Richard I'm going to look into the books. 5 stars
8/18/03 Ethan Splendid. Giamotti should get an Oscar nomination. 5 stars
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  15-Aug-2003 (R)
  DVD: 03-Feb-2004



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