Audaciously Good

One of the features of modern "edgy" cinema is a certain self-awareness, where the film purposely brings attention to its own form. When executed well, it's a bit of an audacious statement, saying something to the effect of "We all know this is an artificial art form, and you're all really silly if you think otherwise, but we still like making films and we're going to have some fun while we do it." Characters in such films sometimes have the same awareness, but more often than not they perceive a single, cohesive universe around them, keeping a pretense of reality so the audience can actually relate to them.

Now, cynical readers as well as cynical viewers that we are, why would I blather on about self-awareness if American Splendor didn't ooze "edgy" so much we can't ignore it?

This film is based upon a comic book - a concept currently so popular, it's almost anti-"edgy" - but this is no ordinary comic. American Splendor is the creation of an oddball personality out of Ohio by the name of Harvey Pekar, an acerbic sort in a dead-end job who cannot draw that well, but his own fascination with the idiom brought him to pass his own autobiographical sketches to more accomplished artists and he became a kind of underground success.

Perhaps it is natural, given that Pekar would refer to the comic within the comic, that the movie have this same self-referential aspect. Pekar actually narrates the film, though Paul Giamatti plays him in the film.

But wait, Pekar also appears in the film, and not just as some cameo, but also as himself. In fact, we see the actors talking with the actual people they're playing! How audaciously self-referential can you get?

It's not like there's no rhyme or reason to this film, just that they've invented their own way of telling the story. We use the actors to go back in time and show how the comic came to be, and other major events in Pekar's life - like getting hitched to a fan and going through cancer. Giamatti makes a fine Pekar, causing what seems like real damage in imitating Pekar's hoarse, gravelly voice.

The thought of what this movie does would drive a lot of industry people insane - they actually completely break any suspension of belief and, by doing so, create something so true and heartfelt, more so than any convential attempt at this material could have produced. I don't know if our co-screenwriter/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini got backed into a corner or not, but they definitely made the right decision on the approach to this film. Why do I suspect they did get backed into a corner? The obvious reason is they have a protagonist that is more of a challenge to sympathize with - granted, that must work in the comic, but film audiences are more fickle and the expense requires a broader appeal. But more than that, it's just the creativity of the apparent solution that gets me - when people are truly backed into a corner, that's when they get the most creative.

There are times when the formula is strained by reality. There are a number of clips used from David Letterman's talk shows. We see Giamatti as Pekar offstage waiting to be called on. When his cue comes, he steps forward and we cut to the real clip with the real Pekar. And that works. But Letterman granted permission for all the clips save one where Pekar was in a less cooperative mood and caused a scene on live television. Letterman can be forgiven for this, but it backed the film into a corner it didn't quite get out of - the scene cannot be left out of the movie, but there's no way to treat it like the others. So they went ahead and shot with actors on a reasonable set, but the break in the non-formula formula called way too much attention to itself. I can imagine other ways of doing this that would have actually still matched the approach of the film, but I can't say they would have been seemless, or even better.

But it hardly matters. I can highly recommend American Splendor because it's about people. Real people with real feelings, even if they aren't sanitized mainstream ones. The film gets us to relate to its characters, not so much as characters, but as these walking, living people we might actually know, people we care about, people who struggle with everyday things, who wonder what it's all about.

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