Friday, March 13, 2020

American Splendor Delivers Both a Unique Movie Biopic and a Top-Notch Paul Giamatti Performance

My primary complaint with so many movie biopics is how rigidly standard they can be. Too often, they're paint-by-numbers stories that follow a real-life subject from their childhood to their death in a linear fashion all while heading down storytelling avenues you can see coming a mile away. In the process, historical figures, many of whom were quite the unusual characters, get boiled down into stock-and-trade motion pictures trafficking in predictability. Such is not the case for American Splendor, a feature film tackling the life of Harvey Pekar that has no problem with tossing traditional movie biopic elements to the wind. Writer and director duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini chase their own creative spirit with American Splendor and it makes for a great movie.

For those unfamiliar, Pekar was a cartoonist who penned the American Splendor comic books, which saw Pekar using comics to reflect the banal annoyances of everyday life like struggling to clean dishes properly or hating your reflection in the mirror. Pekar was a cantankerous soul who worked the same file clerk job for most of his life, even during the apex of his comics' popularity. The movie American Splendor chronicles what inspired him to create his comics as well as his personal life through both a traditional narrative means in which Paul Giamatti portrays Pekar while Hope Davis portrays his eventual wife Joyce Brabnerand. However, the movie also frequently features interviews with the real-life versions of Pekar and his closest associates.

American Splendor dances between these two versions of Pekar in a fascinating manner and it's a compliment to the slickness of Berman & Pulcini's screenwriting that these two disparate sections work so well together. You're never left wanting to focus exclusively on the documentary sections of American Splendor nor do the filmed parts feel excessively more engaging than the interviews with the actual Pekar. Instead, they complement each other nicely and work as an extension of Pekar's own work. After all, reality and artistic representations of reality collided in Pekar's comics, so why shouldn't they do the same in a feature film about his life?

Further blending of reality and art is shown in the clever ways American Splendor utilizes hand-drawn animated elements inspired by comics to move its plot forward. Sometimes this comes about in text boxes that indicate what time period the story has shifted to but the most memorable instances are when the artwork from Pekar's comics are used to reflect the internal psyches of actual people. A scene where Pekar's frustration with an elderly woman in a grocery store checkout lane is manifested through a hand-drawn animated comic book version of himself lends entertaining insight into why Pekar would find catharsis in speaking his mind through comics. Another sequence where Joyce waits to meet Pekar for the first time and begins to see various comic-versions of Pekar scattered around a bus station is similarly illuminating, this time reinforcing Joyce's nervousness over what this comic book writer looks like.

American Splendor is full of scenes like these two that are thoughtful, extremely entertaining and, best of all, a way to ensure that this project doesn't just remind one of other movie biopics. The derivativeness that can plague other biopics is nowhere to be found here, especially since Splendor totally embraces the uniquely pessimistic worldview of its central figure. Such a perspective is vibrantly realized during the interview segments with the real Pekar. At first, these scenes generate amusement in how nonchalant he is about every bit of success that's come his way. By the end, though, when an elderly Perkar becomes more reflective over the state of his life, there's a surprising level of poignancy to the proceedings. Despite his abrasiveness, his frankness about his own mortality tugs on your heartstrings.

Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti is equally impressive in the lead role of American Splendor. Playing a fictional version of any real-life figure is a daunting process but doing so when said figure will also have a prominent role in the movie must be staggeringly imposing. Luckily, Giamatti pulls off this task with remarkable effortlessness. Instead of feeling like a retread of the parts of Pekar we see during the interview segments of American Splendor, Giamatti is able to make a performance that can stand on its own two feet. Even if you had no idea who Harvey Pekar was, Giamatti's work in American Splendor would still impress, particularly in how he throws himself headfirst into portraying the abrasiveness of Pekar without totally alienating the viewer. Giamatti captures a relatable sense of everyday anguish in his on-screen work that keeps you invested even during the characters' absolute worst moments. That specific quality of Giamatti's onscreen work is the very same element that made both the original American Splendor comics so beloved and now it's helped to make this American Splendor movie such a richly satisfying experience.

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