Comic-book movies, eh? All screen-searing FX, supervillain scene-stealers and pumped-up, chiselled-jaw types in muscle-hugging leather. Not strictly true. Especially now that American Splendor's come along.
While it never scaled the commercial heights of most superhero titles, Harvey Pekar's American Splendor series was deservedly acclaimed as a cult classic, its wry, bittersweet and honest snippet-of-life storytelling appealing to a small but fervent audience. It made Pekar a minor celebrity, the curmudgeon even becoming a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman.
All of which - the content of Pekar's comics and his life story (which are one and the same, anyway) - make for a great movie. Especially when you have one of Hollywood's strongest character actors, Paul Giamatti, in the lead role. With his perma-sneer, his weight-of-the-world slouch and his sore-throat croaking, he has Harvey down to a tee. And how do we know this? Because, in a stroke of genius on the part of writers/ directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Pekar is in the film, too. As himself.
Sounds confusing, but it works. Berman and Pulcini bring the real Harvey in for voiceovers and a few docu-style, talking-head interviews, which are used to link the 'story' segments starring Giamatti. Plus, they seamlessly blend in archive footage of real Harvey's appearances on Letterman, as well as making use of the original comic art.
It's hard to decide which elements are most compelling: real Harvey's reflections (including, hilariously, a dig at Giamatti for looking nothing like him), or Giamatti's reliving of Pekar's memories. It isn't a case of deciding, though: all the elements blend comfortably to fuse black comedy and documentary into a constantly entertaining, and often touching, whole.
The supporting cast all pull their weight, too, most notably Hope Davis as Harvey's wife Joyce, and Judah Friedlander as workmate and ultranerd Toby. Not forgetting, of course, the real Joyce and Toby's contributions in the documentary segments...
As a celebration of suburban mundanity, American Splendor measures up well against the likes of Ghost World (another comic adap) and About Schmidt. In terms of originality of approach, however, it's superior to both.
It's Ghost World with worry lines; a must-see for cynics. Especially those who accept, deep down, that the world isn't really all that bad...