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Movie Review

American Splendor

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Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander and James Urbaniak.

As 2004 begins, and we make our long or short lists of promises to ourselves, it's only right that one of the year's first films should tell the story of someone trying to make a difference to their life by doing something they believe in. And all the more heart-warming because it's true. The someone is Harvey Pekar, the Ohio hospital clerk who decided to document his daily grind in the comic 'American Splendor' and who now makes it to the screen after years of acclaim.

The film starts on Halloween in 1950, where a non-costume-wearing but still trick or treating young Harvey finds no generosity in his neighbourhood. Stomping off and throwing his swag bag in the gutter, he asks, "why does everybody have to be so stupid?"

25 years later Harvey (Giamatti) is still tormented by that problem - and plenty of others that have come along with adulthood. He's in a dead-end job, his second wife is leaving him because the "plebeian lifestyle isn't working" and because Harvey shouts so much, he's in danger of losing his voice forever if he doesn't shut up for a few months.

Knowing that the next 30 years could offer up more of the same drudgery, and inspired by his love of comics and the success of illustrator pal Robert Crumb (Urbaniak) in the genre, Harvey starts writing 'American Splendor'. He can't draw, but what's in the speech bubbles of his stick men convinces Crumb that magic is unfolding and he agrees to illustrate.

Word builds - very slowly - and Harvey gets an underground following, which includes Joyce Brabner (Davis), a comic shop owner who agrees to marry him after their first night out. The comic continues through the '80s and they muddle through married life and more mainstream media attention until Harvey's catastrophising becomes self-fulfilling and he is diagnosed with cancer.

Springer Berman and Pulcini's film moves from drama to comic strip to interviews with Harvey Pekar himself and back to his onscreen incarnation, yet unlike 'Adaptation', 'American Splendor' is playful not pretentious and offers more feelgood than its other most recent peer 'Ghost World'. It's a big relief to find a sort-of love story where the people don't look great, where their circumstances aren't ideal but whose happy ending never seems anything less than perfect.

The biggest compliment you could pay Giamatti is that the appearance of his real life inspiration interrupts the intensity of his performance. In the scenes before he marries Brabner, Giamatti excels at playing the lonely man shadowed by the chicken-egg spectre of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. He has a nightmare about losing his job, there's disappointment when he discovers a former college acquaintance is married and Pekar's line about waking up alone "and feeling a body next to me like an amputee feels a phantom limb" could cause some squirming in any audience.

The arrival of Davis' Brabner brings with it not only hope but some of the film's best humour. "I tend to get married fast because I'll take anyone that'll have me," Pekar tells her. And what follows is a test to both their patiences and ultimately a deeper realisation of how much they have when Pekar gets sick. It is Brabner who spurs him on to write 'Our Cancer Year', their acclaimed book whose publication signals the film's uplifting finale.

There's a scene in 'American Splendor' when, after numerous appearances on David Letterman's show, Pekar complains that the TV spots have done nothing for the sales of his comics. It's unlikely he'll have that trouble after this film. And at the very least, Pekar has given lots of hope to those of us who can't even draw a straight line.

Harry Guerin

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