Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review #26: Movie Review #2: Hey, Weird, I Just Realized That Both Movies I Reviewed Have "America" In The Title

American Splendor 

Writers: Shari Springer Berman/Robert Pulcini
Directors: Shari Springer Berman/Robert Pulcini
Released: 2003

A couple of reviews ago, I took a look at beloved webcomic Achewood, an embodiment of modern successful independent comics. These days, the independent underground is no longer too far down. Thanks to the Internet, things can can spread like wildfire. Popularity has never been so easily attainable. In the old days, maybe Achewood would have taken a decade before getting any mainstream attention, rather than the three-ish years that it took in the early 2000s.

But what of the old world underground? American Splendor is a prime example of the slow-but-steady rise to success that was once the norm. First published in the 70s, American Splendor was the brainchild of one [somewhat recently deceased] Harvey Pekar, a friend of indie-comic god, Robert Crumb. Pekar pitched the idea of an ongoing, autobiographical comic book series to an intrigued Crumb, who agreed to illustrate them. A handful of different artists would eventually work on the series with Pekar, and it would eventually gain enough notoriety to earn a modestly-budgeted film.

American Splendor was a small, initial tremor in what was to become an earth-shattering quake of comic book movies later in the 2000s and which is continuing into the 2010s. We have Paul Giamatti in one of his first big roles as the cantankerous Harvey Pekar. And when I say cantankerous, I mean cantankerous: the sickly, sweaty, lumpy, balding man is largely miserable. The film follows Pekar's life as a twice-divorced file clerk as he begins channeling his everyday frustrations into his comics, which slowly gain a following. One of his fans, a Joyce Brabner [Hope Davis], becomes a pen-pal, then girlfriend, then third wife. By the late 80s, Pekar has achieved fame, even making multiple appearances on Letterman. The latter part of the film focuses on a period of Pekar's life in the mid-90s, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Brabner inspires him to use his writing as a coping mechanism during his treatment, and  the award-winning Our Cancer Year is born. He eventually overcomes the illness and he and Brabner end up having a somewhat-happily-ever-after, including an adopted daughter.

Hope Davis as Brabner

The humour is underwhelming and kind of depressing  in the resigned way that you laugh at yourself when a third car drives by and splashes you, because what else can you do? It fits with Pekar's outlook on life as a “war of attrition”. The acting is great all-around and Pekar's pessimism really shines through. Davis laces Brabner with enough sweetness and sardonic wit to match her husband's gloom and help lift him out of his rut. Not that she doesn't have problems of her own; if anything, the film is a statement about how two dysfunctional people can manage to function together.

It reminds me of that Robert Fulghum quote [often misattributed to Dr. Seuss]:
"We're all a little weird. And life is a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness — and call it love — true love."

The film poses some philosophical questions along the way. If suffering is inevitable, why not enjoy it? And why not enjoy suffering with someone that you love? Do people become caricature's of themselves over time? What is the significance of finding three other Harvey Pekars in the phonebook?

The fourth wall is thoroughly busted throughout the film, as Giamatti-as-Pekar speaks directly to the viewer at one point, before “cut!” is hollered and the real Pekar is shown being interviewed off to the side of the shoot. So, what we have [bear with me] is an interview with Harvey Pekar within a movie about Harvey Pekar based on the comic series about the life of Harvey Pekar. Occasionally, real footage of his life is shown inter-spliced with Giamatti's reenactments. It gets a little surreal. The end of the film shows footage of Pekar's actual 2001 retirement party from his position as a file clerk, which he kept throughout his rise to comic icon.

And last, but not least, an American Splendor comic [Our Movie Year] was released later, detailing Pekar's experience collaborating with the filmmakers. So: a comic about a movie about a comic about a life of a guy.  BRAINSPLOSION!!!1


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