"If you're the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day... guess what? You've got the wrong movie."
From the very opening scene co-directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, present us with a rather unconventional film by blending a feature narrative with documentary style footage. Through voice over narration, Harvey Pekar, introduces his character played by Paul Giamatti as an ordinary man living a complex and depressing life. So while this biopic follows a traditional narrative style, it also interrupts it by showing documentary footage of the real people being portrayed in the film explaining the events that took place. The film also includes animation throughout the narrative from Pekar's underground comics, so from the opening credits the audience is introduced to a very different, but clever biopic. Paul Giamatti gives one of his best performances to date and I was glad to finally see him play a lead role. If you are a fan of his work, than by no means will you want to miss this film because his portrayal of Harvey Pekar is perfectly captured in a very natural way. There is nothing ordinary about the character Paul plays, Harvey has a very depressive and unique view on life, and the way he portrays the normal events of his life are told in a sour but hilarious way. Harvey's story alone is worth knowing, but the way the film combines the different styles in this movie make it stand above other traditional biopics.
The film tells the true story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), an ordinary man living in Cleveland and working as a filing clerk in a VA hospital. He seems to get through each depressing day thanks to his enthusiasm for music and comic books, which he collects. One day while searching for LPs at a garage sale, he meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak). They become friends through their passion for jazz music and comics, and eventually Crumb becomes a famous comic book author. This inspires Harvey to begin writing about his ordinary life, and through his unique and dark sense of humor he eventually begins to have some underground success. American Splendor is the title he gives to his autobiographical graphic novels which narrate the common events that take place in his life. In his work he often includes his interesting co-workers: the autistic Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), and the veteran Mr. Boats (Earl Billings), with whom he shares hilarious interactions. Thanks to the success of his comic he also gets to meet his future third wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), and their depressing relationship also becomes an important part of his work. These interactions about the working class and Pekar's way of telling them are the heart of this biopic.
In a way American Splendor's sense of humor reminds me a lot of Seinfeld, although Pekar's vision of life is far more depressing. The blending of documentary footage and narrative feature works thanks to Giamatti's spot on performance. Having the real Harvey Pekar and the actor portraying him in the same film could have been a disaster, but Giamatti captures his mannerisms so well that it works and takes this character study to a higher level. I also thought the secondary characters in this film were all very interesting. They were all so quirky and different, but their interactions with Harvey made for some funny material. One of the scenes that stood out for me was the scene where Harvey and Toby are criticizing The Revenge of the Nerds movie. American Splendor is a very innovative and odd film and one worth checking out despite lacking some better pacing at times. Still it stands out by combining fact with fiction in a very creative and funny way.