Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar, himself), the creator of the autobiographical comic strips 'American Splendor', is a self-proclaimed curmudgeon. He groans and mumbles about the ordeals he endures in his everyday life. In an effort to somehow express himself, he teams up with an artist to create this comic strip in the 70s. The real-life portrayal of his ordinary life is a hit, causing him to encounter not only stardom, but also fierce stress.
This movie is directed with witty self-awareness and fantastic visual style. Every so often, the actual people represented here are shown 'backstage' either narrating or just hanging around the snack table. The movie has not only on-location footage, but it mixes in illustrations, thought bubbles, and time boxes to make it seem more like the actual comic.
Harvey's biggest question throughout this film is to find out who he is and what he means. Is he merely a character? Does he live his life through 'American Splendor'? What value does he hold as 'Harvey L. Pekar'? A woman he falls in love with, Joyce (Hope Davis), helps him find these answers.
Here is a movie that stands on its own. It is simply about a life. It doesn't try to fit in. It doesn't morph details in Harvey's real history to make it more 'appealing'. Instead, we get a very realistic depiction of a very real grouch. Pekar appears to be a man who doesn't care about what others think of him, and here is a movie aware of that as well. It is completely original and blindingly inventive.
Giamatti is fantastic here. I've always found him to be the perfect guy to play the everyday guy. In this movie, every possible emotion has to show on his face. He is perfectly cast. I found Hope Davis was a bit regimented as Joyce, not seeming fully real, but it was a small dislike.
There was one problem I had with the movie, which I know the screenwriters were aware of. Harvey is a grump. And, because of that, the movie becomes centered around an often unlikable protagonist. He has a tendency to get under our skin rather than get sympathy. I knew it was accurate, but the movie always felt detached or distant.
But, as I stated, American Splendor is aware of this. Harvey Pekar was a rather detached and distant person who marched to the beat of his own drum. Once you get past the first impression, he really has a heart. I loved the way this movie was shot, I loved the screenplay, I loved the acting.
American Splendor is accredited only by itself. It's refreshing to see a movie play out without the aggressive efforts to win the audience over. This is an ordinary movie, extraordinarily done.