Imagine a movie based on a true life story, one that is not only based by actually really close to the actual material. Imagine too that the characters in this movie, who represent real people, are regularly alongside these real life counterparts. Imagine a film where the real life person narrates the story of his character, frequently commenting on how this is just a movie and not really him at all. It sounds like something John Barth or David Foster Wallace would come up with, something that would likely require a great amount of attention and a little ingenuity to make sense of.
But that isn’t the case with American Splendor. The directors of this movie have done a remarkable job, but all would have been for not if they would have tried to confound the audience with their aforementioned stylistic choices. These aren’t postmodern tricks, a questioning of identity in the contemporary world. Instead, these choices are just part of the fabric of the movie, the way things are.
Many shots in the movie are framed through the panel of a comic strip, with titles like ‘Our story begins…’ Hilariously, as Harvey and another character walk out of a room and the camera angle switches to a hallway view, the frame in noted with ‘Seconds later.’ The most interesting use of comic panels though is after Harvey has started to get the comic produced, and various actions from his life are transformed on screen into inked drawing from the comics. A waitress fills Harvey’s cup with coffee as he sits in a diner, and the scene is transformed into a drawing with a thought balloon saying ‘I’m desperately lonely and horny as hell.’ Just before Harvey meets his future wife, a person who only knows him from the pages of his comic, she sees various versions of the character waiting for her in the train station.
Both Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who play the fictional versions of Harvey and his wife Joyce respectively, do amazing work in this film. But the real standout is 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander, who plays Harvey’s friend Toby. Toby is a truly original character, a guy who has no problem driving across the state to see Revenge of the Nerds. While Toby is likely a borderline autistic, something that is mentioned in the film, he is never treated as less than an equal by anyone. He is a funny character, but we don’t laugh at him in a cruel way.
The film also depicts Pekar’s experiences on Late Night with David Letterman using actual footage from the show, again interrupting the actors with their real life counterparts. I’m sure that many know Pekar from these appearances, but they were a little before my time and I didn’t even know about them until the movie. I do wish we could have seen the actual footage of Pekar’s disastrous last appearance, rather than seeing the silhouettes of Letterman and Pekar from behind, with a poor vocal imitation of Letterman. This was the only point in the movie where I felt friction between the different portrayals of the characters, yet that may have been a necessity depending upon the availability of that footage.
I began to wonder why the director’s chose to make this film the way they did, rather than just presenting a straightforward documentary. Other such documentaries, like Crumb, have been quite successful. But this approach serves to intensify the material since we can see it played out in front of us rather than only recounted, yet also serves as a comic distance between the real life, somewhat sad story of this man and the playfulness the narrative takes