The movie’s tagline is “Ordinary Life is Pretty Complex Stuff.” And the movie itself, with Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as Harvey Pekar, a file clerk at a Cleveland Veterans’ Hospital, is very good. Harvey creates a comic book based on his life, and he and his book hit a stride of popularity, which includes several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. Things manage to take a downturn when he is diagnosed with testicular cancer. So he and his wife Joyce (Hope Davis, About Schmidt) decide to…write his plight into the comic as well. Harvey manages to beat the cancer into remission, and the movie ends with a party celebrating Harvey’s retirement from the hospital, surrounded by family and friends.
That’s it. That’s the movie. But there are so many creative accents added to the film that it really turns conventional filmmaking on its head. When Joyce decides to go to Ohio and meet Harvey, she gets to the train station, and in her anticipation, we see what she’s been seeing; his comic book interpretations. She (and we) experience 3 different illustrated interpretations of Harvey before she meets him in person. And his first words to her are some of the most memorable ones you’ll hear, they make a girl swoon! Or maybe not. The movie incorporates comic book storyboards into the film frame, reminiscent of what was done in Hulk, but in a much more obvious and, consequently, greater effect. The real Harvey provides narration through the movie. Harvey also provides detail and explains some of the scenes. Footage of Harvey’s appearances on the Letterman show is edited into the film, and we see it in between Giamatti both before and after his first appearance.
Now follow me on these next two scenes: the first is around halfway into the movie, when Harvey and his friend Toby (Judah Friedlander, Along Came Polly) are at work, and Toby is informing Harvey about what appeals to him about Lent and religion. Toby leaves and Harvey is left alone. And the scene cuts, and we watch Harvey walk off the set. Off-set, we see the real Toby and Harvey along with Friedlander, still in his wardrobe with Toby, talking about the movie and what jellybeans they like, as Giamatti walks up to the three, fresh from a scene as Harvey. Shortly afterwards, the real Toby and Harvey are discussing what each other does with their free time, and Giamatti and Friedlander are in the background in chairs, watching the conversation. Believe me, it gets confusing as I type this. The second scene is further into the movie, as Harvey (Giamatti) finds out that there is going to be a play about his life/comic book. So Harvey and Joyce go out to LA to see the play. Putting this in perspective, we’re watching a movie about a guy who made a comic book on his life, and we’re watching him and his wife watch a dramatic interpretation about his life. There’s something more than a little surreal about it.
When Harvey first finds out about the cancer, he goes through it as best he can, mixed in with comic drawings that emphasized how tough the battle was (and is). The illustrator of Harvey’s comic (co-written by Joyce), a comic titled “Our Cancer Year,” has a daughter named Danielle that eventually stays with Harvey and Joyce, and Joyce gets along great with her, and even Harvey’s normally defensive posture tenders up a bit with her, especially after his cancer battle. He even says at the end of the movie that these are probably the golden years, all the more so after the “chunk of change” he got from the movie. Everyone’s performances in the film, particularly Davis and especially Giamatti, are letter perfect, with Giamatti quickly becoming the guy who’s been screwed out of consecutive Best Actor nominations. One thing is for sure though; when you watch American Splendor, you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike those you’re used to seeing. It’s an incredible journey.
In what was a mild surprise, there’s actually a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack to go with the film, and it even sounds very full and well rounded, due to the jazz music (of which Harvey writes reviews and is a fan) that serves as a de facto score. There is even environmental use of the surround speakers when effects are used, such as when Harvey’s cartoon bubble thoughts come into is head. It’s pretty inventive stuff.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen offering that is American Splendor looks very good, as it captures the gritty, subdued look of the Cleveland suburbs, and reproduced the look of the comic panels well. It is not one universal film source however, as the pieces with Harvey are actually shot in HD while the rest is done on film. Regardless, everything looks crystal clear and there are no complaints with it.
The extras start off with a group commentary track whose participants are Harvey, Joyce, Danielle, Toby, Giamatti, Friedlander, and Robert Pulcini and Shari Springier Berman, who co-wrote and co-directed the film. For a track that has so many participants on it, everyone seems fairly disinterested in participating, save for Toby, who provides a critical discussion on fast food hamburgers, and might have a claim as the youngest drag queen in the world. For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ve got to see Toby to see just how much of a polar opposite that must have been. Maybe that gave him the look he has now, who’s to say? We also find about that not only is Harvey a bit of a sweetheart to Joyce (the two still have the letters they wrote to each other), but he’s a charmer to boot (their first date was actually at a McDonald’s)! Everyone takes a break about an hour into the film, as Harvey is interrupted with a cell-phone call, but the track resumes, and Friedlander comes in, probably about two hours late. The track seemed jovial enough, but there wasn’t too much information that was gained from listening to this, and it didn’t seem as fun as it could have been.
The Road to Splendor is a 5 minute look at Harvey’s experiences from the film, from the Sundance showing to Cannes, to a comic convention in San Diego. With brief soundbytes from Giamatti and Davis, the feature centers on Harvey, but there isn’t anything of note here. There is a song called “American Splendor” that runs for 3 minutes, and HBO was nice to include 2 minutes of films they have made. HBO’s inclusion of DVD-ROM extras was a nice touch, as you get the usual downloads of buddy icons, wallpapers and screensavers, as well as links to the film’s website and to Harvey’s website, featuring blogs from Harvey, Joyce and Danielle that are fairly old. There is a trailer, as well as an easter egg (highlight the speaker on the drive-thru sign and hit enter) that shows you more on Toby.
Those who are curious should probably give this one a rent, but will probably enjoy it enough to pick it up. Cinema fans will enjoy having this one in their libraries. It’s a very enjoyable, unique movie, and arguably the most creative in recent memory. You’ll enjoy this.
Special Features List
- Group Audio Commentary with Directors, Cast & Harvey Pekar
- Featurette: Sundance Channel’s “Road to Splendor”
- Music Only Track : American Splendor Song
- “My Movie Year” 12 page Comic Insert That Appeared in “Entertainment Weekly”
- DVD ROM Features including Screen Saver
- Easter Eggs