Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, Kill Your Darlings, and Camille Claudel 1915—all opening in the next few days—we single out some exceptional biopics.
“There was never one version of Harvey,” said Dean Haspiel, an artist who worked with Harvey Pekar, in a New York Times story published a couple of months after the comics legend’s death in July 2010. That sentiment heavily informs American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s warm, unconventional biopic of the man behind the long-running American Splendor comic.
Readers familiar with the comic—or who simply remember Pekar from his comically tense appearances on Late Night With David Letterman in the ’80s—know that Pekar was a character, a man whose working-class irascibility masked an intellectual’s mind. His comics were deeply personal and idiosyncratic; they focused on the mundane, day-to-day existence of a guy working a dead-end, “flunky” job at the Cleveland VA hospital. As Paul Giamatti, who plays Pekar, says in the film, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
Pekar wrote his comics and worked with a variety of artists to illustrate them, based on his stick-figure guides. As a result, Pekar’s world could look notably different from comic to comic, and so did Pekar himself. As his wife, Joyce Brabner (played perfectly by Hope Davis), says early in American Splendor, at times he looks like a young Brando in his comics, but other times he looks like a hairy monster.
Berman and Pulcini implemented that “never one version of Harvey” axiom by creatively presenting him three ways: via Giamatti, clever interstitials with Pekar himself, and animation. Pekar provides the narration, which frequently goes meta to comment on Giamatti and the film. Within a couple minutes of the opening scene, Berman and Pulcini cut to Pekar recording his voiceover, as they ask him questions about being in the film and his preference for orange soda. The tact could come across as too high-concept, but it works, in part because the film mixes in real footage (of Pekar on Letterman, for instance) with staged scenes. Without the interstitials with Pekar, the real footage would be jarring; as is, it fits into the film pretty seamlessly.
American Splendor, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003, draws from the eponymous comic book for source material for much of the film, then uses Pekar and Brabner’s graphic novel Our Cancer Year for the third act detailing Pekar’s first battle with lymphoma. Pekar’s job as a file clerk at the VA hospital played a pivotal role in his life and identity, and American Splendor closes with footage of his retirement party. It’s a literal celebration to end a film that serves as a low-key celebration of Pekar’s life as a peculiar icon.
Availability: American Splendor is available on DVD, which can obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase through the major digital services.