Dir: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini. US. 2003. 105 mins.
American Splendor tells the true story of Harvey Pekar, the writer of the American Splendor comic book series which depicts the inanities of Pekar's humdrum life. A sort of celebration of ennui, or triumph of the nerd saga, the film recalls Slacker, Ghost World and other tales of directionless folk in subject matter but its ambitious structure - incorporating interviews with Pekar and the real-life people on whom it is based as well as animated sequences into the drama - gives it a distinctiveness which no doubt contributed to its selection as the Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival last week.
But for all its accomplishments, there is a dramatic inertia in American Splendor which will pose problems for the film when it hits the theatrical marketplace - if it does so at all. Produced by HBO Films, the film is close to a US distribution deal and only in the US will it have a reasonable chance of specialised success. Almost parochial in its bleak Cleveland setting and Americana overtones, it will be a tough sell in international territories, although a cult status in the domestic market could encourage a similar following overseas. Certainly the comic books themselves offer plentiful marketing and publicity opportunities.
Springer Berman and Pulcini have two feature documentaries to their credit (Off The Menu, The Young And The Dead) and their handling of the material betrays their non-fiction origins. While the dramatised sections are well-crafted and well-acted, the film only comes alive when Pekar himself is on the screen. Unlike Ghost World with its barbed dialogue and witty set-ups, American Splendor fails to elicit much humour or pathos out of its subjects, probably because the directors' fondness for the real-life subjects handicaps their ability to have some fun at their expense in dramatic form.
Pekar (Giamatti) is a self-consciously cantankerous soul who, when he meet him in the mid-70s, is overwhelmed by loneliness (he is twice divorced) and the dullness of his existence (he is a clerk at the local VA hospital). An obsessive jazz fan and record collector, he meets Robert Crumb (Urbaniak) at a music sale and the two become friends. It is Crumb and his success with underground comics who inspires him to start documenting his working-class life. Pekar writes the stories - which cover routines in his life like waiting at the super-market checkout or chatting with co-workers at tea-breaks - and Crumb illustrates them initially. The first American Splendor is published in 1976.
As his underground popularity grows through the years, Pekar remains in his clerk job and remains unhappy, but he finds love after a long correspondence with the salty, bespectacled Joyce Brabner (Davis) and together they experience his fame together, flying off to New York for appearances on the David Letterman Show or watching a stage version of his life in Los Angeles. Later their love will be tested by Pekar's refusal to have children and his diagnosis of cancer.
The film is at its best when showing how Pekar can express himself through his comic book writing - even to the point of documenting his battle with cancer. It is weakest when documenting his day to day life, which might prove amusing on the pages of American Splendour but is merely drab on screen. He's an unhappy everyman, and his lack of hope is draining to watch.
The directors give Cleveland a washed-out hue to capture its industrial gloom, while filming interviews with the real Pekar in bright comic-book colours - a clever conceit but one which again shows Pekar up to be more engaging than Giamatti's portrait of him is allowed to be.
Prod cos: HBO Films.
Int'l sales: HBO Enterprises.
Prod: Ted Hope.
Scr: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini.
DoP: Terry Stacey.
Prod des: Therese DePrez.
Ed: Robert Pulcini.
Mus: Mark Suozzo.
Main cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander