Wonder Reviews
American Splendor ****
Early Oscar Wish List 2003
Movie Quotes You Forgot Were Awesome
2002 Top Ten
2002 Oscar Wish List
2003 Oscar WIsh List
Movies That Suck
All Time Favorite Movies
Favorite Links
Contact Me
Current Reviews
Critic Mumbo Jumbo
People you Should Know
Cool List


Harvey Pekar: Paul Giamatti

Joyce Brabner: Hope Davis

Toby Radloff: Judah Frielander


Written and Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini



            Independent films get a raw deal.  Even if they are critically acclaimed, they were few times get the box office receipts “great” movies should get.  American Splendor follows suit.  It received glowing reviews throughout printed and electronic media, but got the usual paltry sum independent films earn at the box office.  Somehow, I do not think the makers of American Splendor mind.  It seems like they were after art rather than dollar signs.

            American Splendor is an unusual movie.  It is the adaptation of the comic books that Harvey Pekar wrote about his own life.  It blends unique animation, voiceovers from the real Harvey, and short glimpses of the actual people, with Harvey and his wife appearing in interviews among others.  And it all works.  None of the gimmicks seem like gimmicks.  They all blend together with the amazing acting of Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce to equal a wholly original masterpiece.

            It has been said that real life is stranger than fiction.  In the case of Harvey Pekar, real life is quirkier than fiction.  Pekar is a complicated hero, depressed and barely buoyant for much of the picture.  He works the unexciting job of file clerk at a Cleveland hospital.  He stingingly collects records.  He scowls.  Where we connect with Harvey Pekar is in the American ideal of achieving your goals, your dreams.  He wants to do more than what he has been doing, and he’s going to become famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) in spite of all the things that stand in his way.  Namely himself.

            The film starts with the point of the movie.  Young boys in superhero costumes trick or treat on Halloween.  They all hold up their bags and one by one, candy is dropped into Superman, Batman, Robin, and the Green Lantern’s bags.  When the woman comes to a young Harvey standing at the end of the line, she asks who he’s supposed to be.  Harvey, who is not in costume, very sincerely says, “I’m Harvey Pekar.”  It mirrors our perceptions of heroes.  We place larger than life mythical characters on pedestals while real living, breathing heroes stand in our midst.

The action continues as an adult Pekar at a doctor’s office being checked out for his loss of voice.  He is reduced to a tiny, screeching tone attributed by the doctor to too much screaming and yelling.  When Pekar gets home, his second wife is leaving.  He manages to get her to stop in her tracks and she waits for his words.  All he can manage is a barely audible squeak along the lines of “don’t go.”

It isn’t until Harvey meets cult comic book artist Robert Crumb at a garage sale that his life starts seeing light.  After Crumb makes it big on the success of Fritz the Cat and other comics, Harvey sees an opening to make an unconventional comic book.  The revelation comes as he waits for a Jewish woman to finish at a check out counter at a local grocery store.  Caught at the back of the line as she haggles with the management and cashier, Harvey’s animated alter ego begins to shout at him to do something with his life.  So he does.  He leaves the line and rushes home to sketch out what would eventually become the first issue of American Splendor, a comic book all about his life featuring him as the main character.  He gets his pal Crumb to draw the first issue and soon his work is being acclaimed and touted as art.  Still, money doesn’t roll in with the independent comic and he continues working as a file clerk.

Years later, an American Splendor fan named Joyce Brabner (Davis) writes him asking for a copy of an issue she missed.  Correspondence continues, eventually leading up to her visiting Harvey.  His first words when meeting her at the airport are that he’s had a vasectomy.  Romantic stuff, indeed.  But their romance blossoms during the visit, albeit strangely.  Brabner proposes to him seconds after vomiting in his bathroom, and a dazed Pekar agrees.

The remainder of the film is a testament to their love, through his cancer and uneasy courtship of fame, among other surprises.

American Splendor is sharply written, containing wit and poignant moments when you least expect them.  The movie is the tale of Harvey Pekar and the filmmakers take exquisite care to tell it. 

They cast the movie brilliantly.  While the first response to casting a biopic is to cast actors that look the most like their real life counterparts, the American Splendor scenario is the blueprint to follow for all others.  Take character actors that can inhabit the real life counterparts in their roles.

Hope Davis is a character actress seen in films from About Schmidt to The Secret Lives of Dentists.  But she does not like the real-life Joyce Brabner.  The filmmakers try to disguise this with a black wig and Brabner-like wardrobe, but the real characterization comes with the inflection of her voice, the look in her eyes, the little mannerisms that many performers neglect.

Paul Giamatti doesn’t look like Pekar a whole lot, but every mannerism he employs is spot on.  Giamatti is one of Hollywood’s go-to guys (along with William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and John C. Reilly) for playing shlubs – average, Midwestern-type guys who aren’t dreamy or picturesque, but often are the best characters.  So when Giamatti opened his mouth and a screeching mess came out, I thought it was the work of him and the filmmakers trying to give Pekar a character-defining quirk, not unlike Giamatti’s work in the past.  Then they interview the real Harvey Pekar soon after, and I realized Giamatti was just taking hold of the character.  Giamatti nails Pekar right down to the wide-eyed scowl that seems to be at both their disposals at any time.  It’s a splendid performance in the splendid movie that is American Splendor.



grammatical errors due to site builder limitations