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American SPlendor

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: American SPlendor

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis
Director: Shari Springer Berman
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: September 2003
Genres: Comedy, Cult

*Also starring: James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar, Judah Friedlander, Shari Springer Berman, Larry John Meyers, Cameron Carter, Josh Hutcherson, Joey Krajcar, Chris Ambrose, Vivienne Benesch

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
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Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

There's a lot to admire in the innovative cinematic construction of AMERICAN SPLENDOR but not much to like unless you're a fan of the autobiographical comics on which it is based. Harvey Pekar, whose mundane life is chronicled in his "American Splendor" comics, is an ordinary working-class guy whose day job is as a hospital file clerk. The movie has everything from traditional talking head interviews to documentary footage of Pekar on the "Letterman Show," but most of the film is a dramatization with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey and Hope Davis playing his wife Joyce. Sometimes the movie sets the action inside comic book frames, and, at other times, comic book figures come to argue with Giamatti as Harvey. This cornucopia of approaches certainly attempts to enliven what is otherwise an admittedly commonplace story. I never laughed or even smiled, but, to be honest, I've never found this reality brand of comics funny, entertaining or even the least bit interesting.

"I'm just a gloomy guy," Harvey confesses to his wife during the film. After our screening, Harvey, who was there, was asked if he was finally able to enjoy his life now that he had gotten a bit more fame and fortune from this film. "I might be on the cusp of enjoying it now," he said, not very convincingly.

As the movie's ever-present narrator, Harvey makes the story feel more like a documentary than a dramatized biography. His very scratchy voice produces a fingers-across-the-blackboard experience that ends up detracting as much as it adds to the production. He has lived such a relatively hardscrabble life that it's easy to understand his overwhelming sense of sadness and depression. His comic book stories are clearly meant to give some meaning to humdrum lives everywhere. His unabashed lack of self-esteem becomes almost liberating for him as he champions the world's underdogs. Still, my respect for the film's techniques and for the man himself did not translate into an enjoyment of the motion picture.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR runs 1:40. It is rated R for "language," which I never even noticed. The film would actually be fine for all ages, but a kid would probably need to be at least ten in order to appreciate it.

Copyright 2003 Steve Rhodes

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