‘American Splendor’ – Paul Giamatti as an underground curmudgeon on Max

Paul Giamatti lets his paunch hang, his eyes bag, his posture slump, and his lips curl into a sour sneer to play Cleveland curmudgeon turned underground comic book legend Harvey Pekar, author of America’s only genuine autobiographical comic book series.

The American Splendor (2003) created by documentary vets Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini is part biographical drama, part literary adaptation, and part documentary. They intersperse their adaptation of Pekar’s life with stylized interview segments with the real Pekar, whose wheezy voice also narrates. In a modest, unadorned style that matches Pekar’s own comics, they chart the long, strange trip of the morose file clerk from his early friendship with Robert Crumb (engagingly underplayed by James Urbaniak in a straw boater and a brush mustache) through his underground fame and infamous appearance on Letterman to his battle with cancer. Most importantly, it charts the course of true love.

Hope Davis, under mousy brown hair and glasses like window panes, is Joyce, a pessimistic comic store manager riddled with her own engagingly unique quirks. Their marriage, a match made in the purgatory Pekar calls his life, only looks dysfunctional. “With Joyce, I met my match,” he remarks, an uncharacteristic glow of adoration softening the creak in his voice. They squabble, they mope, and half of their conversations are parallel monologues that connect only by accident. Giammati and Davis make it all bracingly natural and honestly affectionate. Think of it as a fittingly unconventional happy ending befitting the real life comic book adventures of America’s blue collar everyman.

“Harvey tends to push the sour and the depressing,” explains the real life Joyce. “I’m just a gloomy guy, that’s all,” responds Pekar with a crooked smile. American Splendor affects the gloom but sneaks up on you with the crooked smile of the pulp poet of working class life.

The film earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, adapted in part from Pekar’s autobiographical comics, and won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it won numerous awards from critics groups, including best picture and best adapted screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Judah Friedlander, Donal Logue, and Molly Shannon costar.

Rated R

Streams for a limited time on Max

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
American Splendor [DVD]

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The DVD features group commentary by writer/director team Sharon Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, actor Paul Giamatti, and the real life Harvey Pekar with wife Joyce Brabner and daughter Danielle Batone, and Pekar’s friend, coworker, and “real life nerd” Toby Radloff, plus a featurette and a bonus audio recording of theme song.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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