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American Splendor - Review

A Bitter Woody Allen in Cleveland

About.com Rating 1.5 Star Rating

By Jurgen Fauth

American Splendor

Permanently dour: Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in "American Splendor"

The backlash starts here. "American Splendor" won awards at the Sundance and Cannes Festivals and has been showered with much advance praise. The innovative approach to a hip topic -- the story of comic artist Harvey Pekar's life told with a promising cast, documentary footage, and Pekar's own autobiographical work -- was bound to turn heads. But for me, the movie worked in all the wrong ways.

The problems begin with Harvey Pekar himself, the gloomy, neurotic fellow at the heart of the multi-layered project. In how many different ways can you say "Aww, shit?" Harvey dedicated his life to find out. His shtick is an annoyed, bitter Woody Allen routine filtered through the postindustrial landscape of Cleveland, Ohio -- drawn by R. Crumb and others, and acted by Paul Giamatti.

I've had my eye on Giamatti for a while -- he played the stunted documentary filmmaker in Todd Solondz' "Storytelling," and added humor to last year's underrated heist caper "Confidence." He's a character actor, one of those guys you recognize but don't know by name, like John C. Reilly and Billy Cox. Giamatti is pale and hunched over, but his eyes radiate weasely intelligence. Still, he is an actor, and just like Hope Davis as Pekar's wife Joyce, he can't help but add a level of fake. After his watered-down version, it's a shock to see the real, much more abrasive Pekar ranting on "Letterman." For all of Harvey's talk about authenticity, this film is as fake as they come.

The art that makes Pekar interesting, the "American Splendor" comic books, are shown, but hardly enough.

There are a few experiments with animated characters, drawn surroundings, and use of comic book conventions for montage (which Ang Lee employed more inventively in "The Hulk") but if anything, the film's insistence that it wants to be a comic seemed self-defeating -- why not just read the comic books?

There are a few good lines and a couple of good laughs in "American Splendor," but chances are you've seen the trailer and already heard them all. Generally, Pekar's humor consists of lame stand-up bits that we've heard a million times before (Old people in the check-out lane can be annoying! And how about those airline peanuts?) -- but directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini seem to think we won't recognize the stale jokes in their spiffy postmodern duds. As groundbreaking as Pekar's topics and deadpan humor were in the superhero-dominated comic books of the 1970s, they come across as retreads in 2003. Grumpy losers we've seen plenty, and after "Maus," "Jimmy Corrigan," and "Safe Area Gorazde," the battle for graphic novels as literature has long been won.

On the other hand, whenever the movie is touching (in the final bit and during an excruciating sequence about Pekar's bout with cancer that led to the acclaimed "Our Cancer Year"), the presence of the real Pekar undermines the fiction. I cannot feel for Paul Giamatti's character when the real Pekar keeps poking his head in to comment on his life. My suspended disbelief comes crashing down.

Since they look like storyboards, comic books make obvious candidates for adaptations into film. It worked in "Dick Tracy," Tim Burton's "Batman," Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World," and Ang Lee's "Hulk." Here, neither the Hollywood-ready fiction nor the intrusion of the real-life footage add anything to the comic book material. I suppose if the success of "American Splendor: The Movie" allows Pekar and Joyce to retire comfortably and shake some of their gloom, it was a worthy enterprise, but as far as I'm concerned, the film is simply superfluous.

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