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(© John Clifford, HBO, Fine Line Features)

photo caption:
ON CAMERA: Joyce and Harvey Pekar, above, appear as themselves in "American Splendor," a film starring Paul Giametti and Hope Davis.

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American Splendor: Autobiographical Cartoon Adapted Into Depressing DocuDrama

Review by Kam WIlliams

I might be dating myself by admitting this, but I became an avid reader of underground comic books back in the late sixties, just when they first captured the imagination of rebellious teens eager to embrace an anti-Establishment counter-culture. Easily the most popular cartoonist of that era was R. Crumb, the certifiable oddball from Cleveland, creator of such memorable characters as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural for Zap Comics.

In 1994, Mr. Crumb's dysfunctional family served as fodder for the film Crumb, a cult hit which was met with fairly uniform critical acclaim, if not box-office support. Thus, it comes as no surprise that someone might now seek to dramatize the life and times of Crumb's most successful collaborator, the equally eccentric Harvey Pekar.

Beginning in 1976, Crumb began illustrating the introspective journalistic entries of the moody friend with whom he had previously shared an interest in hunting for obscure jazz records and comic books at garage sales. Their novel approach to cartooning, offered in periodic installments, was entitled "American Splendor." It amounted to Harvey's mostly bitter, yet identifiably authentic, matter-of-fact musings about his love life, his job, his health and whatever else was on his mind.

These slice-of-life tales, a precursor of the cubicle man Dilbert, caught fire, kickstarting the whole genre of comics. Once "American Splendor" resonated with audiences of all ages, the country clamored to see Harvey Pekar in the flesh. So, this otherwise unremarkable misanthrope became something of a celebrity when David Letterman decided to add him to the rotation as a regular guest.

But this grumpy, unpolished writer was not quite ready for prime time and Letterman ultimately had to dump his surly guest after realizing that his 'angry man act" was no act. For despite all the celebrity, Harvey, until his recent retirement, still had to work at a menial position as a file clerk at a local V.A. Hospital.

I found the film version of "American Splendor" to be somewhat disappointing, because it's essentially a sympathetic rehash, with further elucidation, of the same diary entries discussed above, all of which had already been published over the years in the original cartoon series. And while the storyline is certain to sound very familiar to diehard fans, I suspect that the uninitiated might not take to the dated, relentlessly depressing rant of the movie's working-class hero.

Nonetheless, Harvey is played by capable character actor Paul Giamatti (Big Fat Liar), his wife, Joyce, by Hope Davis (Mumford), while James Urbaniak (Legally Blonde 2) appears in a brief role as R. Crumb. Among the production's redeeming features are the appearances made by the real-life Pekars, including their adopted daughter, Danielle. Also noteworthy is the cinematic technique of frequently splitting the screen into frozen panels, a la an actual comic book, a trick tried just a couple of months ago much less effectively by Ang Lee with The Hulk.

Amusing, but not the best advertisement for cartooning, coupling or a career in Cleveland. Good. Rated R for profanity.

end of review.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.


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