American Splendor (2003)

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I always enjoy it when filmmakers find new, exciting ways to make biographical films about interesting people. Let’s face it, the same dreary drama is not for everyone, and some extraordinary subjects deserve extraordinary biopics. That is why when I watched American Splendor, the absolutely excellent film based on the life and works of comic book writer Harvey Pekar, I was surprised to find it was the complete opposite of a boring biopic – it was a vibrant, quirky independent comedy with some genuine heart and a lot of genuine brilliance behind it.

Paul Giamatti is a superstar character actor – he may not be a huge movie star or highly bankable, but he is very reliable, and that is why he is perhaps the most consistent character actor working today. Whether in a leading role or a supporting one, he always gives it his all. His unique voice, his strange appearance and his everyman personality make him an unconventional leading man, but in a film like American Splendor, it works out perfectly. He gives arguably his greatest performance as Pekar, a misunderstood genius stuck in a job that only further complements his obscure¬†fame. Using his talents to bring the unique voice of Pekar to the film, Giamatti was absolutely wonderful in the role, and certainly gives a performance for the record books. It is a prime example of the rare occurrence when an actor truly inhibits the real-life person he or she is portraying. That doesn’t happen very often, but Giamatti managed to do it. Great supporting performances by Hope Davis as Pekar’s loving but feisty wife, and Judah Friedlander, as the borderline-autistic colleague of Pekar, are also great elements of this film (the real life inspirations also appear in the film as themselves)

Most biopics try and root the story down in reality by transforming the actors into the characters they are playing, attempting to make us believe for the duration of the film that the actors aren’t just playing the person, they are the person. American Splendor does something unique – they put the real Harvey Pekar in the movie, not as a cameo like many biopics have, but as part of the story, and we see him throughout in little interludes, playing himself talking to the filmmakers who ask him questions. It is a very odd method of making a biopic, and it would’ve been so easy for us to compare the real Pekar and the fictional Pekar, and if a weaker actor played the role, it would’ve just been dreadful. But since Giamatti was so excellent, we were able to see how accurate his portrayal of Pekar actually was. For once, we didn’t need to be fully aware of who the subject beforehand was to judge the performance, but instead we got to see it during the actual film. It is a very experimental and odd way to go about telling the story, but it was absolutely brilliant and something that made American Splendor a great film.

The lives of artists are incredibly fascinating, and I truly endorse the biopic, because we get to see a little bit of their lives and creative processes, even if they are semi-fictionalized. Pekar was a comic book writer, and the comic motif was present throughout the film – the opening credits are some of the most brilliant I’ve ever seen, and the allusions to the world of comic books and graphic novels are wonderful. The entire film plays around with filmmaking techniques and creates a very surreal, but warm, element to the film – it isn’t entirely fictional, but it isn’t entirely fact either. It exists in some strangely wonderful limbo, where American Splendor is neither a biopic nor a documentary. It is both and neither.

American Splendor is one of the most unique and wonderful films I’ve seen in a while. It is calm, vibrant and very relaxed, all the while being a fascinating portrait into the life of one of the most underrated literary geniuses in history. It is a great film, and one that hopefully gains more than the dedicated cult following it has now. Giamatti is just excellent, and the film is a exhilarating exercise in unique, quirky independent filmmaking.

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