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American Splendor
2003 (2004) - HBO Films/Fine Line Features (HBO)

review by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

American Splendor

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/B-

Specs and Features

101 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered, keep case packaging, audio commentary (with Harvey Pekar, friends, family, cast and crew), Road to Splendor featurette, American Splendor by Eytan Mirsky audio feature, My Movie Year comic insert, theatrical trailer, DVD-ROM features (including wallpapers, screensavers & web access to HarveyPekar.com), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (22 chapters), languages: English DD 5.1 & 2.0, subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy."

Released last year to enormous critical acclaim, American Splendor is the film adaptation of the comic of the same name by Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) and its follow-up Our Cancer Year, which Pekar wrote with his wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). Based on the events in Pekar's life, the film traces his job as a file clerk for a VA hospital, his writing career and the love and fame that it eventually brought him. It all may sound like movie of the week material, and in less capable hands it easily could have become it, but all involved here, including Pekar himself, stay true to the source material; never softening blows and wearing all of its curmudgeonly glory on its sleeve.

The first section of the film, covering Harvey's background and the development of the American Splendor comic book, convincingly sets the stage for the rest of the film. The VA hospital and Pekar himself are established here. R. Crumb (James Urbaniak from Henry Fool) shows up as the inspiration for Pekar's jump into the comic business and his first artist as well (Pekar would use several artists for the comics, being unable to draw them himself). The films mixing of various visual styles is also established here, using documentary and comic book techniques intermingled throughout the film, freely moving from one to another. The middle section takes on the guise of a romance as Pekar meets his future wife, Joan. This all leads to an emotionally fulfilling third act where all things come to a head and Henry must deal with emotions beyond his gruff exterior.

Harvey Pekar is anything but a typically likeable character: wheezy, opinionated, angry, and just plain generally unpleasant. It's an achievement that viewers can actually connect with Pekar and feel for him as things start becoming more and more difficult. The filmmaker's do such a wonderful job showing Harvey's stubbornness and emotional isolation that when this all starts to break down it carries great emotional weight. Furthermore, the film manages to stay upbeat without compromising itself and falling into the trap of over-sentimentalizing.

Paul Giamatti tackles an extremely difficult role here, which is compounded by the fact that Pekar himself actually appears in the film as well as narrates it. It is a testament to Giamatti's abilities that he's able to actually share screen time with Pekar and not cause a frisson to occur. In many ways it is similar to how different artists drew Pekar in different ways, we can see two Pekar's on screen at the same time and accept them both as 'real.' How Giamatti's performance didn't fill his mantle with awards I'll never understand. It's not just his talent for mimicry that is astounding, but the weight and presence he brings to the role. Sheer mimicry alone would bring about a flat performance, and empty experience, but that is not the case here.

Supporting players are strong as well, but also show off one of the films few flaws, namely that there isn't much for the supporting characters to do here. Aside from Pekar and Brabner, characters are little more than caricatures. This works on a certain level since this isn't really their story, but it would still help ground things in a greater 'reality' to have more fully formed supporting characters, especially when the leads are so solid. Overall this doesn't make the film any less enjoyable though, but it does seem to hold it back a bit.

HBO Video does an admirable job with their release of American Splendor. The anamorphic widescreen video is usually nice and sharp, with strong, vibrant color. Noise is kept to a minimum, although slight haloing does pop up from time to time in high-contrast scenes, but this is really being nit-picky. Aurally everything comes across clear as a bell with nice separation. Everything shines where it matters most and it is a pleasing effort overall. Extras begin with a commentary track with Pekar, Brabner, their daughter Danielle, Paul Giamatti, and writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, with Pekar's friend Toby Radloff as our Host. This is an entertaining commentary overall, funny and informative, although it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is speaking and it does veer off tract into (admittedly entertaining) tangents at times. Also included is a very brief featurette, Road to Splendor, which follows the film on the festival circuit. It's nice, but too short to really be able to present anything of real substance. There is an audio feature that presents Eytan Mirsky's song, American Splendor, played over a static background; as well as a non-anamorphic theatrical trailer. Also included is a 12-page original comic written by Harvey Pekar entitled My Movie Year, which is a nice addition, especially for those unfamiliar with the source material. It's short and sweet and a welcome addition to the set.

In the end, American Splendor is a fine little film, served up very well here by HBO Video. The supplements are decent, if a bit light, but we're really here for the film. Even if you are not familiar with Harvey Pekar's work, you should give this film a look; it's worth your hard earned cash.

Rob Hale
robhale@thedigitalbits.com


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