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American Splendor (2003)

Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 101 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Almost all movies adapted from comics are Hollywood blockbusters featuring superheroes with extraordinary powers, like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Blade, DareDevil, X-Men, Hulk and so on. 'American Splendor', however, is an altogether different affair – based on 'nobody guy' Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comicbooks 'American Splendor' and 'Our Cancer Year', the film documents Pekar's decidedly anti-heroic life – by day a not so mild-mannered hospital filing clerk, by night an obsessive-compulsive self-chronicler, regular guest on David Letterman and, latterly, survivor of testicular cancer. No battles between good and evil, no superhuman exploits, just the everyday thoughts and experiences of an irascible working man trying to eke out an existence. From its opening sequence in which, at the end of a line of trick-or-treaters disguised as various superheroes, a young, costumeless Pekar complains 'I ain't no superhero – I'm just a kid from the street', 'American Splendor' is concerned with the unsung heroism of an ordinary life, going out of its way to tell Pekar's story without any idealisation or 'Hollywood bullshit'. At the same time, the film is a sophisticated exploration of the paradoxes which emerge when real life becomes art. Just as in the original comics Pekar's character was drawn in radically different styles by a range of artists, including Pekar's long-time friend the underground artist Robert Crumb ('they made a movie about him too', as Pekar says), so too in the movie Pekar appears elusively in a number of different guises. We see him as both a still and animated handdrawn cartoon, and played by actors as both a boy (Daniel Tay) and an adult (Paul Giamatti). In one scene Giamatti's movie version of Pekar is seen watching a stage version of himself (Donal Logue), while in another scene, Hope Davis (who plays Pekar's wife Joyce) watches the real Pekar with David Letterman on a television screen, only to greet Pekar's Giamatti-incarnation coming off the Letterman set. The real Pekar reads out his voice-over narration (which was in fact written not by Pekar but by the directors), complaining that Giamatti 'don't look nothin' like me'. In the middle of scenes, there are unexpected cuts in which the actors are revealed to be sharing a soundstage with the real people that they have just been portraying, while the real Joyce Brabner and the real Pekar argue about whether Pekar's comics represent an accurate depiction of his life. Amidst all these artfully postmodern disruptions of the dramatic illusion, Pekar becomes a strangely fragmented figure, difficult to pin down despite the fact that he is always right there in front of us.While he is without doubt different from most screen heroes, his mediated appearance in comics, on stage, on television, and now in this film itself all militate against his constant protestations that he is 'real' and 'no phoney showbiz guy' – after all, everything in 'American Splendor' is artificial and contrived, and even the 'real' Pekar is following someone else's script. Documentary makers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have created an intelligent challenge to their own craft. Coming at a time when so-called reality television is at its most popular,'American Splendor' raises important questions about the contradictory relationship beween real life and its representations in the media – but at the same time the film is always playful, telling a funny, dramatic tale with a quirky voice.

It's Got: A divorce on the grounds that this plebeian lifestyle just isnt working, a nerd obsessed with piña colada-flavoured sweets and Revenge of the Nerds, and a hilarious performance from Hope Davis as the neurotic intellectual Joyce (I guess I have a borderline health disorder that limits me politically when it comes to eating).

It Needs: Pekar for President!


A wonderfully quirky biopic about an ordinary, real guy who is not really ordinary or real at all.