There’s something about a biopic that, on a larger scale, resonates with casual movie-watchers. Is it the existing familiarity of the featured likeness or the circumstances around their achievements (or failures)? Perhaps it taps into a deeper, ingrained desire to swim in the ocean of true stories? Could it be the formulaic approach itself; origin to platform to conflict to accomplishment? Or, maybe we dig seeing movie stars portraying real icons? Whatever the case may be, between box office hauls and the seemingly inevitable awards accolades, the success of a well-crafted, timely biopic is undeniable.
Although “success” may, in fact, be a bit subjective. Sloppy films earn huge profits at the box office every year and rare, ground-breaking titles fly criminally under the radar more than they should. Perhaps no better illustration of this dichotomy exists than that of the biopic. For every Bohemian Rhapsody or The Theory of Everything (both heavy-handed, cliche, and lacking fervor) there are stunning gems like Marie Antionette, I’m Not There, or The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Of course, there are a few high-flying achievements that capture the myth and deliver the cinematic goods; see Malcolm X, The Aviator, and The Queen. The irony rests in the beloved formula itself. We gravitate towards the familiar, to the power of true stories. Yet, formula, more often than not, stifles creative exploration.
It’s rare to see a biographical film adequately capture a likeness and reinvent the arena of which it resides. Generally speaking, biopics aren’t the hub for experimental cinema. But occasionally, one breaks-through to gift us a journey of multimedia expression and champion the true, authentic Everyman in all his inglorious and forgettable gusto.
That is the intersection where my favorite film resides.
American Splendor is, in strict definition, a biopic … but it’s so much more. What we discover is an unkempt symphony of distorted reality, Hollywood renderings of real people intermixing with the actual folks themselves, all in the name of displaying the underbelly of a true, blue working-class file clerk as he birthed one of the more unique independent comic books of the modern-era. So yes, American Splendor is a biopic, but it’s also a comic book movie, but it’s also an off-kilter documentary of sorts, but it’s also full of career-best performances, but it’s also an unfiltered look at everyday life, but it’s also delightfully dull, unapologetically funny, and surprisingly poignant. What we have is a rare American feature that salutes both creativity and disappointment through the vehicle of a true life story. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it.
Here’s a quick break-down:
American Splendor is a movie about this guy, Harvey Pekar.
He plays himself in the movie (sometimes). Most of the time Harvey is captured by Paul Giamatti.
The movie charts the genesis of Harvey sort of accidentally creating this indie comic book.
Through the frames we follow Harvey Pekar the quintessential, uninteresting Everyman. Toiling each day as a file clerk in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio we get a glimpse of his Jewish heritage, love for jazz, the diverse curmudgeon-laced energy framing his whole being, a sloppy apartment, and the frustrating minutiae of grocery shopping and other everyday happenings. Pekar’s life is as unfiltered as it is forgettable yet perfectly suited for the literary medium he ended-up championing. Well, he doesn’t champion anything, but you get the picture.
Pekar, the real one, narrates the picture as the other Pekar, Giamatti, plays it out in flawless nondescript fashion (seriously, where is his Oscar?!). Within the happenings, now-and-again, a third reality pops-in, the renderings and thought bubbles from the comics themselves. An uncanny immersive approach that was certainly unmatched for its time and laid the track for future works like Cobain: Montage of Heck. It’s through this prism we see first-hand how Pekar came to craft something as gloriously unrefined–yet deeply–honest as American Splendor.
Essentially, the comic was born from his love for words and a unique ability to notice the entertaining and not-so-entertaining moments of boring living. “From off the streets of Cleveland” each issue would claim because, well, it’s precisely that. Think Seinfeld but working-class and, yes, a twinge more sophistication. That’s Pekar’s world; the one of which we’re immersed in, a film of bending realities, truths, and unkempt fictions.
Here’s a great snapshot of all the components in action.
This scene is a fantastic window into what makes American Splendor, both film and comic, work. That raw believability, the frustration mixing with the art from both heightens the hilarious intensity and poetic wastefulness of it all. I mean, how many hours–no days–of our lives are spent waiting in line waiting for something utterly unremarkable?
What brings it to life are the interweaving characters Harvey encounters through his uninteresting journey as a hospital file clerk. Toby, the loveable but socially awkward nerd with an affinity for jelly beans, White Castle, and the newly released cinematic phenomenon, Revenge of the Nerds. Of course, we can’t forget Mr. Boats the aged Black-man who stops by Harvey’s desk to rant and inspire about the world. There’s Robert Crumb, yes that Robert Crumb, David Letterman, and so many more. Some completely confined to the actor portrayals and others overlapping with the real likenesses themselves.
The film, helmed by the visionary Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, paints the picture beautifully for both newcomer and avid fans of Pekar’s eccentric world. Much of what we see is Harvey’s inspiration for notable sequences from the comic, but each of them nuanced and expertly expository providing the necessary context behind each interaction; each moment of darkly comic realism. And it’s through this series we reach the cherry on top. Harvey’s newfound pen-pal, Joyce, both Hope Davis and the real Joyce, becomes his new (but not first) wife. Naturally, she was a devoted reader to the imperfect ramblings of everyday Cleveland interactions. It was a match-made in oddball heaven to be honest.
So what’s the point of re-hashing so much of the plot about nothing? Because in the thick of it, when the heated breath of morality soaks Pekar’s neck, that’s all we are left with; the people and the “nothing” interactions. The wastefulness of it all is, in fact, quite the opposite.
As with most of our biopic protagonists, the worst finds him. This one in the form of a cancer diagnosis. Up until this point, Pekar spent his days bitter; disgruntled at the sheer enormity of the daily struggle to stay afloat, the numberless little annoyances that add up time-after-time, the never catching a break theme his life seemed to carry. And it’s at that point, the moment of rock bottom that he faints and enters this moment.
This scene, this monologue, my favorite single moment in cinema.
The subtle, wondrous desperation juxtaposed with the distorted reality drawn behind him with each line. Semblances of a man at the end of his already frayed rope; grasping for a sense of meaning in a world he never felt that fond of and damn sure never thought it carried much in the way of purpose. And yet, the undercurrent of poignant observation, that uncanny perspective of which Pekar so expertly wielded, finds a deeper level of profundity as it unpacks his own fallibility and, yes, meaninglessness.
This lone scene should have been enough to earn Giamatti the Oscar; his performance in the film entire is nothing short of brilliant mastery. But the monologue, in this instance, represents some of the best writing 20th Century comics and 21st Century cinema has seen. The echoing sound of a ringing phone not being reached; the haunting reality of the phone book; the aimless wanderer; the simple question, “Who are these people?”; and the unexplainable sadness. It’s all there. The canvas of Berman and Pulcini brings the expanded reality to life in the most tangible way.
Therein lies the tipping point. Humorous and epically tacky as the narrative and Pekar’s meanderings may be, they’re rooted in a deep sense of community. The nerd, the angry old man, the psychoanalytical partner, the illustrators, all the regulars in his orbit, even the grocery store clerks, carry that sense of purpose; they carry the fleeting sense of being alive no matter how typical or unremarkable they may be. They’re his people.
Perhaps that’s where the true genius rests in the film. Glancing at Pekar’s life in a vacuum, it feels incomplete. You could make the case the man never took a real chance. His story doesn’t jump off the page. Even the comics in and of themselves only expand that picture to a certain degree. They illuminate his brilliant mind and the cranky, astute lens of which he views the world. But melding it all together in a film; a creative cacophony of sensory artistry, rigid dialogue, and coarse blandness that we find the heart fueling it all. Harvey Pekar was a man that lived a full life, a life packed to the brim with loyal, dear friends, with rare humans of the most beautifully eccentric degree. He lived for them and they for him. And it was beautiful.
That’s what Berman and Pulcini captured; they captured not just the formulaic story of the man–they reinvented every biopic convention to share the endearing, unrefined story of the working-class man’s patron saint. They gave us Harvey Pekar in all of his humorously curmudgeon glory–both real and reimagined–and it delivered, in between silly arguments and random observations, those often touted but rarely captured moments of earned emotion and illumination. They gave it to us in a fashion that could only have been captured in this impeccable installment of cinema.
Universal truth is hard to come by, but a few things I know for sure. Biographical cinema is at its best when it refuses to settle for merely telling a tale but rather when it transcends into the stratosphere of using a familiar, or in this case not-so-familiar, chapter to help us feel and discover along the way. The ones that dig deep into the muck, that hold a mirror up to society, that dare to say, “this is what people’s lives are like and damn you if you’re not inspired because they don’t fit into your neatly defined boxes”. That’s the potential a biopic carries. The simultaneous immensity and shrinking sense of living each day to make it to the next. That’s what we mean when we say movies and the true stories they tell can transport us. Not just to the fantastical, but to the actual.
After all, ordinary life is pretty complex stuff, right?
Harvey can rest easy knowing he brought voice to a distinct, often overlooked faction of Americans and reminded us that there’s honor in being an Everyman. American Splendor is a testament to such.