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:: American Splendour

A true original film in every sense, American Splendour, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, combines animation, adaptation and documentary to present to us the life and times of Harvey Pekar, comic book writer, music & book critic and hospital file clerk. A renowned writer, who began writing his autobiographical comics American Splendour in 1976, Pekar was, and is, the American idol of the “working-class Everyman”.

We first meet him as a down-on-his-luck guy, twice divorced, with a barrage of annoying habits. He hates his life, hates cleaning and everything else, with the exception of his mad passion for collecting records and seems quite content with his job as a hospital file clerk. He makes no qualms about letting us know life sucks and is boring as hell, a philosophy that he translates into his comics once he meets and befriends Robert Crumb (comic book illustrator).

After gaining some minor notoriety in his hometown of Cleveland and beyond, Harvey (Paul Giamatti) meets and almost immediately proposes to comic book seller and fan, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) and eventually their relationship grows to accommodate each other’s quirks. Harvey’s’ comics and popularity spreads which leads to a regular guest on The David Letterman Show, however the taste of fame is not a pleasant one as the whole nature of the beast attempts to compromise Harvey’s’ comedic vision and lifestyle, which he refuses to do. As one of Harvey’s most public battle with David Letterman and NBC occurs, he finds out he is embarking on a more personal battle of his own, cancer. Joyce encourages him to write the illness into his comics; again causing a surge of renewed critical acclaim and popularity for his honesty and effort.

Finally retiring from his file clerk job, Harvey and Joyce adopt a little girl, Danielle and still live in Cleveland today. As the film closes, Harvey admits to us that his life is not all tied up neatly in resolution as the film may suggest (which it doesn’t anyway), but that it is always going to messy and complicated, a profound honesty that his American Splendour comics translated so beautifully through the film.

The film’s innovative and multi layered script weaves through its several different incarnations of style, as the story moves and shifts fluidly with Harvey and his different incarnations throughout his life. When Harvey and Joyce’s meeting and proposal is played (or adapted) by its actors Davis and Giamatti, it is then cut between Harvey and Joyce’s real life recollections of the meeting. It is then shown as the stage play which the actors (Davis and Giamatti playing Harvey and Joyce) are watching other actors playing them, and then relayed again visually through Harvey’s’ comics in comic-book style animation. This unique and inventive style is brilliant to watch unfold, especially the sequences of David Letterman Show appearances in which we are presented with Giamatti as Harvey on the show. Then, real footage of Harvey on the show. Then Harvey telling us about what happened, and Giamatti sitting beside the real Harvey in documentary scenes interspersed throughout the film.

Watching the actors and the real life inspirations sitting side-by-side discussing Harvey’s life and how it affects each other is truly genius filmmaking. All cast performances are outstanding, especially from Giamatti and Davis, who are consistently good actors but possibly just needed the right roles (which this provides) to prove that they are great actors. The supporting cast, both actors and non-actors, are great to watch and provide upbeat little moments in Harvey’s mostly dark life.

It possibly is the true original post, post-modern film - self aware and encompassing conventional storytelling, with animation and documentary, a diverse range of stylistic techniques in which to tell its story. It is clear to see why this film won the Grand Jury Prize at 2003 Sundance Film Festival, it just a shame it hasn’t won any more.

A definite must see.