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American Splendor (2003)

by on 2012/04/24

“It’s like the Treasure of the Sierra Madre or something. You go to thrift shops and you go to garage sales because you think you’re going to find something that’s real rare and, most of the time, it’s a total waste of time but, once in a while, you’ll come up with something that will whet your appetite.”

* * * *

I knew a guy who was always depressed. He’d slink into rooms, drop into a chair, sigh theatrically, and throw himself across the table top. He complained about everything, bad-mouthed whatever anyone enjoyed, and was generally a downer to be around.

And yet, few considered him a pessimist. I couldn’t help noticing, however, when other people spoke about me, I was characterized as a cynic, dark, “half empty”, slightly askew. I didn’t understand the disconnect.

In time I got a clue. I noticed in meetings, if I didn’t say much, I’d be asked to contribute eventually. Regardless of my state of mind, I said what I believed. Good or bad, thumbs up or down, I gave my honest opinion.

See, that’s the thing I figured out, it’s all about our truth. Nobody wants to hear it, they want their expectations confirmed . . . something I have trouble with, so I’m mistakenly labeled a pessimist or cynic.

Needless to say, I rarely get invited to meetings anymore.

American Splendor features someone who feels awfully familiar. Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti of Paycheck) is a humble, sickly, file clerk. While he’s not especially ambitious, he’s still vaguely unsatisfied. Into his teens he collected comics. From then on, it was music on vinyl. He’s a thrift store aficionado, and has had little success with women.

He tells the truth, usually unvarnished, often to his own detriment, though he’s not exactly himself here, we discover. The narration makes clear Giamatti is just an actor, “the guy playing me” in fact, as the speaker reveals. Then we meet the actual Pekar, recording the voice-over. It’s that kind of experience, Ghost World crossed with Adaptation.

His evolution into comics icon informs the central arc, supported by personalities like Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), and Robert “They made a movie about him too” Crumb (James Urbaniak). As if it weren’t meta enough that many of the characters appear in their real-world incarnations, a later scene shows them watching a play about themselves.

So I guess it’s slightly M.C. Escher as well.

From a filmmaking perspective, all the tricks of the trade are used, but sparingly, and never out-of-place, nor overdone. We see archival footage intercut with the recreations, fourth walls get broken, comic panels worked into the credits, edited to the beat of old jazz music, freeze-framed with super’ed thought bubbles, and similar cartoon elements. Sometimes animated characters enter our world. Sometimes it’s the reverse.

I believe, if there’s a message here, it’s that life is messy, complex, that real and unreal affect each other, that everything is relative. As with my favourite forms of poetry or Christopher Guest ensembles: within an overarching structure, it’s good to let loose, go crazy, and get creative. If so, then Pekar shows us it is possible to be an optimist, at least in the framework of being realistic.

Of course, that theme might have seemed more compelling before his fatal overdose.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

101 minutes

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