American Splendor

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Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Chris Ambrose, Joey Krajcar, Josh Hutcherson, Cameron Carter, Daniel Tay
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

By day Harvey Pekar is a slump-shouldered, grumpy filing clerk working in a hospital in Cleveland with geeks and obsessives for friends. But Harvey has a comic-book alter ego: also a slump-shouldered grumpy filing clerk working in a hospital in Cleveland with geeks and obsessives for friends. AMERICAN SPLENDOR the film takes its name from Pekar’s graphic novel; but is it a film of the book or a film of the man behind the book? Well, in truth, it cannot help but be a bit of both because the book is autobiographical and tends to detail the seemingly mundane minutiae of Pekar’s life.

Taking its archly post-modern lead from the likes of ADAPTATION, AMERICAN SPLENDOR flits back and forth between biographical reconstruction, featuring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, and scenes of the real Harvey (and associates) discussing his life story. As unpromising as it may sound this is a fascinatingly compiled exploration of perceived ordinariness. It traces the juxtapositional happenstance that developed as the popular cachet of Pekar and his nerdish coterie increased when they won the patronage of two of the doyens of 1980s popular culture: MTV and David Letterman. But did they enjoy a warm embrace or were they the subject of cheap exploitation? Well at the time their lauded champions probably believed that it was the apex of ironic cool to promote the antithesis of their own era-defining hipness. However, as the film illustrates, it is the image of their ‘victims’ that has been best served by the infallible wisdom of hindsight.

Despite its unconventional presentation AMERICAN SPLENDOR achieves what 90% of cinema aspires to: a simple story exceedingly well told. It is a clever film blessed with great performances, wry humour and technical bravado. It will also leave 90% of an average cinema audience thoroughly nonplussed. And that’s a good thing. Probably.

5 out of 6 stars