Published Dec 01, 2003It's a peculiar challenge to do a three-tiered adaptation: how do you interpret, cinematically, a comic book interpretation of a man's life? Cleveland, OH file clerk, pessimist and jazz aficionado, Harvey Pekar, is our hero. Both the everyman and the outsider, Pekar's autobiographical comics have resonated with the lonely and introspective for decades. In this long-awaited adaptation of Pekar's comics, which are written by Pekar but illustrated by people who can actually draw, filmmaking takes a turn for the meta-meta.
Where, for example, Adaptation starts with reality and spirals into a frenzy, American Splendor treats its subject with just the temperament it calls for: a grey, even-handed look at what one might call "extreme banal." As in his comics, Pekar himself leads us through the movie while actor Paul Giamatti cuts a good, sullen Pekar, most of the wheezing voiceovers are Pekar's own. And what the film does best besides showcasing a tragically funny, obstinately touching man's life is illustrate Pekar's unique relationship with, well, himself.
To make oneself the star of one's art or to do it as directly as Pekar has is a hard path. American Splendor pokes through Pekar's own narrative here and there to examine what it really is he's done to himself: is he just drawing his own life, or is he a character? Is he his comic self's conscience, or does the public audience of the comic serve as a check for the real Pekar? As our hero faces cancer, his wife Joyce urges him to draw through the struggle as a way to remove himself from the difficulty of the life experience.
Yet for Pekar, his art is not just a way to insulate himself, to wrap himself up in the distance of a sometimes miserable existence like a torn winter coat: it's a way to connect to that existence, and the film version of that existence, in all its meta-glory, brings us one step closer to Pekar's difficult, but beautiful, reality. (Alliance Atlantis)