Paul Giamatti stars in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman for HBO.

American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

American Splendor has a little too much going on. Directors Berman and Pulcini seem to want to do something different–Splendor opens as a cross between a docu-comedy and an attempt at time period preciousness (which gets them into trouble later as the film doesn’t progress, visually, out of the eighties). Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar from the sixties through the nineties. Harvey Pekar narrates and gets interviewed.

Berman and Pulcini don’t really give Giamatti a part so much as a comic book character. Splendor is the dramatized true story of Pekar, who dramatized his own life in a comic book. So it’s a comic book adaptation once removed or something. The filmmakers don’t actually do anything with it–Pekar, in the narration, recounts how he’d become a quirky, exploited outlier at the height of his eighties celebrity, but the filmmakers don’t do it much different.

Then Hope Davis shows up as Pekar’s wife. And Pekar’s wife shows up for a bit too in the interview sequences. If Berman and Pulcini only give Giamatti a caricature based on Pekar to play, they give Davis even less. When there is actual dramatic material–cancer, a foster child–the filmmakers go straight to summary. Splendor’s all artifice.

Maybe if Berman and Pulcini were better directors–Terry Stacey’s photography, presumably on location in economically depressed Cleveland saves a lot of the visuals–the film would work out better.

Giamatti’s really good, he just doesn’t have much material.

Splendor’s too slight.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; screenplay by Springer Berman and Pulcini, based on comic books written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Pulcini; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope; released by HBO Films.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Joyce Brabner (Real Joyce) and Harvey Pekar (Real Harvey).


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2 thoughts on “American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)”

  1. This debuted on TV? I could’ve sworn it premiered theatrically, even though it’s HBO Films. Anyways, you’re totally right, Giamatti as Pekar is great casting, as is Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff, but despite all the business of the concept, it’s never compelling. Maybe they should’ve just made a buddy comedy about Harvey and Toby going to White Castle and discussing Revenge of the Nerds. Everyone should just read the comics instead. At least the film allowed Pekar to retire on better than a VA file clerk’s pension.

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