Poor schlub Harvey Pekar lives in a hovel, works a thankless job as a low-level file clerk at a V.A. hospital, and dreams of doing something creative. Then he stumbles on an idea for a comic book—about a poor schlub living in a hovel, working a thankless job as a low-level file clerk at a V.A. hospital, dreaming of doing something creative, then stumbling on an idea for a comic book—about a poor schlub . . .
That's basically the plot of American Splendor—which is also the title of Harvey's claim to fame, his underground comic book. The idea doesn't sound promising, but the filmmakers have combined live action, simple cartoons, and, in their most audacious move, scenes with the real Harvey Pekar and his real wife and friends, to fashion one of the more offbeat and interesting films of 2003. The result, more complex and original than a movie within a movie, is a multi-layered experience. Is it a movie about a life about a comic book? Or a movie about a comic book about a life? You decide.
What it isn't is a typical Hollywood story of triumph over adversity. Pekar appears to be just about as down on his luck at the end of the film as at the beginning. He stays at his file-clerk job until retirement, perhaps sensing—correctly—that he'll never get rich producing an offbeat comic book aimed at a quirky audience. Nor does he undergo any sort of personal transformation. But for the audience, American Splendor is an unexpected pleasure and, in my opinion, a far more interesting film than the overrated Lost In Translation.
There's nothing special about the picture or sound, but both are perfectly acceptable for this type of film. Nor will you be bowled away by special features; a group commentary track, including the two directors and Harvey Pekar, is about it. But like such films as Memento, Adaptation, and even Lost In Translation, American Splendor is like a palate-cleanser between blockbuster courses. Or are blockbuster courses the palate-cleansers between films such as this?—TJN