THE BLOG
05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American Splendor

I don't know why, but I really like Paul Giamatti. I don't know what it is, maybe it's the way he comes across, a pathetic but harmless loser or maybe it's that I'm not used to seeing a bald, hideous, bug-eyed goblin star as a leading man on the big screen. Either way, there is something about seeing that guy in a movie trailer that makes me want to see the movie. But there after watching numerous Paul Giamatti movies, notably Duplicity, Lady in the Water, and Sideways (hiiiiighly overrated); I began to notice that all of his movies kind of suck, especially the ones he plays a large part in. For that reason, I have avoided seeing any Paul Giamatti movies that came out or haven't seen yet. And that brings us to American Splendor, a film released in 2003 starring everyone's favorite diminutive, balding troll of a man. This was a movie I know I SHOULD have seen years ago, but I was never really that enthusiastic about seeing it because I figured it would be another Giamatti suckfest. Thankfully, I was wrong.

American Splendor is the story of one man's life, Harvey Pekar. Harvey Pekar is a comic book writer who was living in Cleveland and began to write comics about the mundane details of his everyday life, which turned out to be anything but. The comic books were titled American Splendor and in them Pekar writes about any and all events; his job as a file clerk, his co-workers, meeting his wife Joyce, and eventually dealing with cancer, all in the terse prose that tiny comic book panels allow. The comics themselves are funny, poignant, and altogether fascinating; showing a side of life that most mainstream storytelling ignores, but that almost everyone can relate to. The movie is sort of a docufictiamentary (I bet that word would be a lot easier to read if I broke it up, docu-ficti-amentary), with Paul Giamatti playing a fictionalized Harvey Pekar, but one that is based heavily on the American Splendor comics. This is intertwined with some voice-overs by the real Harvey Pekar and unscripted scenes with the real Harvey and various people from his life who are also portrayed in the fictionalized portions of the movie. So to recap, it's essentially a fictionalized biography based on comic books that are based on real events which are portrayed by actors and mixed with real scenes by the real people that are the characters in the comic books, and thus the characters played by the actors in the movie. Got it?

Despite my extremely confusing description of the movie in the previous paragraph the movie itself is done very well and will not leave you nearly as confused as I have. The movie melds together the fictionalized world and real world perfectly, both in fluid and in abrupt ways. There are times where Paul Giamatti will walk off screen and the movie will lead into real footage of a similarly dressed Harvey Pekar, while other times a scene in the movie will end, and Paul will walk off set onto a white stage where the real Harvey Pekar is sitting, speaking to the camera or an acquaintance in a much more documentary style type setting. Through all of this the viewer is never left guessing what is going on, you always get a strong sense of what is part of the fictionalized story and what is real. There aren't any of those "wait, what just happened? Who are those guys? What the hell did I miss? DEAR GOD WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?" type moments that are indicative of poor story telling (well, I guess you want those in mysteries, but you get what I'm saying).

The most impressive part of the movie was how well the filmmakers' were able to respect and pay homage to the medium that made Harvey Pekar who he is, the comic book. Many of the events that happen; the lines of dialogue, the conversations, even some of the framing of the actual shots, are straight out of the comic books. There are scenes in which animated cartoon characters interact with the characters, then there are also scenes in which the real characters interact in a cartoon world, and even the documentary type scenes with the real Harvey are shot and framed as if they were cells in a comic book. All of this creates a feel to the movie that is as original and clever as Harvey's comics were when they were first published.

But what really makes the movie work is the real emotion behind it. Harvey, whether in his actual form or in Paul Giamatti's incarnation, is an extremely relatable character. He feels the same loneliness, doubt, insecurity, and anxiety about life that we all feel, but he does so in a way that isn't hackneyed and contrived like most Hollywood characters. There is very little Hollywood bullshit in this movie, it is real and fantastic and unique and relatable all at once, without ever being forced or fake. It gave me hope that there could be more movies starring Paul Giamatti that wont make me want to blow my brains out (see: Lady in the Water). Now time to rent Cold Souls.