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Adrian Mackinder

Published January 6th, 2004 | by Adrian Mackinder

American Splendor Review

Classification: 15 Director: Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini Rating: 4/5

So, you’re creating a comic book hero, a cult legend, an iconic slice of Americana. How do you go about it? Well, how about this: by day, Harvey Pekar is a disgruntled file clerk, working a dead end job in Cleveland, surrounded by weirdos and plagued by paranoia and insecurity. But by night, Harvey Pekar is…asleep.

OK, the execs at Marvel and DC may not be chomping at the bit to get their hands on this franchise, but that didn’t stop Harvey Pekar from turning himself into an entirely new kind of comic book hero when he penned the autobiographical American Splendor, which began in 1976 with the help of underground comic legend Robert Crumb. Rapidly gaining a cult following, the American Splendor graphic novels basically acted as an illustrated forum for Pekar’s everyday thoughts, but it was not until the late 80’s when several appearances on the David Letterman Show turned him into a star overnight and now, like Spiderman, like the X Men, Harvey Pekar has his own movie.

Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor is a wonderfully dry, well-crafted piece of filmmaking. Pekar himself narrates the story that from the outset, presents himself as someone who never really fitted in. The film first shows him dressing up for Halloween as ‘an American kid’ before jumping through to the moment his first wife leaves him but he can’t protest as he’s lost his voice due to excessive shouting. It is this point that he starts to put together his thoughts in the form of stick figure drawings and, with Crumb’s illustrations he starts to immortalise his own life. The film chronicles the major events in his life, whether working in his hateful job, meeting his second wife Joyce, his fateful appearances on Letterman or, most controversially, receiving treatment for cancer. The subject matter is not always the most comfortable to watch, but it is handled with the typical dry, self effacing wit that runs through the comic series and ultimately makes for a surprisingly life affirming story that has real heart and spirit.

At the centre of the film is a bravura performance from Paul Giamatti as Pekar, who adds to the film’s humanity and a warmth, despite the fact that Pekar is a remote, crumpled soul, not easily given to demonstrations of positive thinking, outward emotion or even happiness. He is pretty evenly matched however by Hope Davis as his intellectual, over analytical and emotionally cold second wife Joyce and surrounding them are a whole range of socially-awkward misfits, particularly Toby Radloff, fellow co-worker of Pekar and self-appointed ‘nerd’, played by Judah Friedlander.

The bizarre thing about watching this film is that the characters seem so over the top and extreme, but the directors cleverly interweave the real people with the actors playing them. There is one absolutely hilarious scene involving Giamatti and Friedlander as Pekar and Radloff talking non-sensically at work, which then cuts to the actors trying not to corpse as they watch the real life Pekar and Radloff, now in their sixties, having a similarly ridiculous conversation off set about differently coloured sweets. It’s as if the real characters were inserted into the story just to show that Pekar wasn’t exaggerating in his writing.

American Splendor is not a mainstream film and may not appeal to everyone; for some, Pekar and his world of odd-balls could be seen as irritating and at times punchable and the film’s earthy tone does little to elevate it into a more accessible medium for depicting what the comic books are about, but in that sense, it is possibly the most faithful comic book adaptation ever committed to film and carries the spirit of the series proudly and wears it’s downtrodden heart on it’s sleeve. It is not one of those films that will cause a sensation, but one that will leave the fans of the comics satisfied while leaving everyone else with a wry smile as you realise that in order to create an intelligent, funny and ultimately positive story, you just have to look at what’s going on around you.


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