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Film Review: American Splendour

The splendour of banality. Or something like that.

Based on the life of Harvey Pekar, American Splendour is an extremely unorthodox film about an extremely unorthodox person. Pekar (still alive & kicking in his seventies) is portrayed as a highly intelligent, yet neurotic and grumpy character that works as a file clerk and collects jazz records. He is famous for his autobiographical comic books and their only purpose is to describe his everyday life and whatever observations or lessons his overly eccentric character takes from it. To illustrate this, there are several Harvey Pekars throughout the movie; principally Paul Giamatti who plays the great man himself and the real Pekar makes several appearances too. At times, animated Harveys appear on screen in synch with the actors and oddly, this combination of film and animation invokes every scene in which they're featured.

The film is laced with banality (so much so, some of the audience left midway through the viewing I attended) but they didn't realise that therein lies its point. Pekar points out some of the most obvious things and usually with an unhealthy overdose of pessimism. Such as when the film opens and Pekar has lost his voice and immediately assumes he has throat cancer. Not only that, he has no voice to beg his wife to stay when he gets home from the hospital. Which of course, she doesn't. And don't you just hate it when you join the shortest queue in the supermarket and yet for some pathetic reason, it always takes the longest time to get through? Such ordinary realism that occurs in all our lives is brought to the screen with sardonic humour and a laugh at Pekar's expense.

It's unusual, but the main role is split between the real Harvey Pekar and Giamatti's portrayal of him. For instance, we see Giamatti gearing up for an appearance on the David Letterman show but what you see is actual footage taken from an archival show when Pekar appeared on it some 20 years ago. In another bizarre example of this, a scene is cut as a wrap and we switch to off-camera where the real Pekar and Giamatti engage in idle conversation. Certainly not standard movie-making procedure but it allows the audience to see exactly how moronic and contrary Pekar can be; he's even cynical of his own biographical movie! Also, the advantage of this is that the audience have the benefit of witnessing just how good Giamatti is in the role. Equally good is Hope Davis as Pekar's wife Joyce Brabner, a woman who shares his sense of irony (she even marries him 2 days after meeting him) and she delivers an excellent performance as a layabout, who just wants to laze life away while her constant bantering with her husband is a testament to the chemistry between the 2 characters. The supporting cast maintains a strong presence with Judah Friedlander playing a nerd to perfection and James Urbaniak as Pekar's sarcastic cartoonist, Robert Crumb.

All in all, American Splendour is certainly a memorable venture, and is probably destined to become something of a cult classic. Well-written and very original with a good but not overboard dosage of humour, ?Splendour? is not in short supply.

Who would have thought that ordinary life could be this entertaining?

Jimmy Murphy

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