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American Splendor

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
American Splendor
from Film Forum, 08/28/03

"The unexamined life is not worth living." If Socrates had not said those words, they could have come from Harvey Pekar. The inventive and wildly entertaining film about Pekar's life in theaters this week demonstrates that very principle.

Pekar is many things. If you have heard of him, then you probably encountered him on the David Letterman show or as the writer and central character (but not the artist) of a series of comic books called American Splendor. Nevertheless, Pekar has spent most of his adult life as a file clerk, surrounded by people that society seems to overlook.

What sets Pekar apart from other comic book authors—indeed, from most artists of any kind—is his attention to the details of ordinary lives, to losers and "average folks," to menial activity and common conversation. As he focuses on these details, he discovers the epic, the tragic, and the comic in everyday life. His humor is tinged with bitterness, sadness, irony, and sarcasm, but it also glows with affection for unglamorous people.

The new film American Splendor, written and directed by devoted Pekar fans Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, portrays the grouchy, cantankerous, philosophical cartoonist in a variety of ways. Pekar starts off as cartoon character, which then comes to life through an inspired performance by Paul Giamatti. Finally, the real Harvey arrives to play himself. Pekar narrates his own film in his unique laryngitic rasp, reading a script that others wrote about his life. It's a bold approach, and it succeeds brilliantly, thanks to clever screenwriting and a talented cast.

Even though Pekar's strange rise to fame develops into a familiar fight-with-cancer drama, the film is never less than engaging. Most of the time it is surprising, hilarious, and thoughtful. The filmmakers never lose their focus on larger themes. In the end, American Splendor is one of the year's best films. It's an inspiring epic about how one man, cynical about life and boasting that he doesn't believe in "growth," stumbles into true love and a family. For the Christian viewer, it works as a story of grace coming to those who, sadly, never stop to question what their blessings mean.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is similarly impressed: "Despite a discursive script and meandering pace, the film's dramatic rudder—Pekar's alienation and search for meaning in life's marvelous minutiae—holds the story in tow, driving it forward and providing a linchpin to keep viewers engaged. Sadly, the Divine has no play in the prickly poet's musings about ultimate meaning and purpose."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a strange amalgamation of genres. The movie does a wonderful job of bringing those comic book stories to life. Pekar's deadpan humor, especially about himself, is exceedingly funny." But Parks believes that the film "falls short" from the moment Harvey's wife Joyce enters his life. "Though Hope Davis is a fine actress and one I'm always happy to see … her character's presence sends the film in an unfortunate direction. The movie becomes much more about their relationship and Harvey's struggle to make a name for himself. It's standard bio-pic stuff, following the traditional narrative arc of ups, downs, self-realization, and eventual triumph."

Movieguide's critic says it "ultimately paints a positive portrait of one unique man and his family, but it contains plenty of strong foul language."

Few films released this year have received as warm a welcome from mainstream critics as American Splendor. Click here to scan through some of their rave reviews.

from Film Forum, 09/04/03

At Dick Staub's CultureWatch, there is an examination of American Splendor, the inventive and hilarious look at the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar. The reviewer says, "[Pekar's] worldview is cynical and outlook bleak, but he looks out for the less fortunate and is kind to the disenfranchised at the VA hospital where he worked. His selflessness is maddeningly mixed with a tunnel-visioned selfishness. A subtle preoccupation with death and what happens when we die weaves itself through the storyline. In theological terms, being 'saved' is less about being nice than being real and I couldn't help but wondering why I meet so few 'real' people among those who call themselves 'saved.' I like hanging with people like [Pekar], and I think Jesus would too."

from Film Forum, 10/02/03

Posting on past releases, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) and Loren Eaton (Plugged In) ponder the insights available to viewers in American Splendor.