American Splendor

Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis. Directed by Shari Springer Berman.
Running Time: 100 mins
Rated: MA 15+

Harvey Pekar, a Detroit-based hospital filing clerk, discovered early in life that he was not meant to be a superhero. In fact, his life was more than particularly ordinary. Rather grumpy, no clothes-horse, paunchy, with two failed marriages, he got along by selling records and collecting comics. When he met cartoonist, Robert Crumb (the subject of Terry Zwigoff's fine documentary, Crumb), some of his life changed for the better. He started to write captions about his daily life, his humdrum experiences. Crumb liked them and offered to draw them. The result was the American Splendor comics.

Pekar continued in his day job until 2001. However, his comics took off and, for a time, he was an acerbic guest on the Letterman show. He married an admirer, Joyce Brabner, who also created a book on her charity concern visits to Israel. Harvey developed a cancer but overcame it - but the experience resulted in a joint effort by Harvey and Joyce, a comic book on his cancer year. Joyce, an intuitive diagnoser of other people's mental problems, wanted children. Harvey did not. Yet, when a cartoonist friend left his daughter in the care of Harvey and Joyce, they found fulfilment and adopted her.

This film is basically a docudrama. However, it is full of zest, humour, pathos, with an original style. We see the real Harvey and the real Joyce. Interviews with them are interspersed throughout the film, sometimes with the actors playing them watching the interviews. Most of the Letterman shows are actual - except for the last one where Harvey tells him off.

Paul Giamatti is wonderful at recreating Harvey, an impressive performance and impersonation. Hope Davis is excellent as Joyce. This is an affectionate but strong critique of American life and a creative way in cinema of doing what cartoons and captions have done in Harvey's comics and books.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communications and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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