By Glenn Dunks
June 4, 2014
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. Hey, whatever. It fits!
Movies based on comic books are rarely unique these days. Whether it’s because of the stylistic homogeny of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe, or simply the inability to make the likes of Superman interesting beyond mere beefcake, they may kill at the box office yet have more or less ceased providing much in the way of imagination. This is why Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s American Splendor has managed to remain such a special piece of filmmaking; a diamond in the rough that has proven to get even better and more necessary as the years go by.
Like Ghost World before it, Pulcini and Berman have taken an unconventional comic and given it a cinematic make-over. Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) and his wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) – real life societal fringe-dwellers the likes of which surely had John Waters and Todd Solondz wishing they’d come up with them first – hardly seem ripe for the colourful pages of a comic book let alone the big screen, but thanks to refreshingly wry and candid writing as well as a delightfully playful filmmaking style, American Splendor flourishes in the shadows of its special effects-laden cousins from Hollywood.
Part traditional feature, part documentary, part animation hybrid, this wickedly entertaining flick follows the life of depressed file clerk Harvey, who suddenly finds underground fame and romance thanks to a series of comics that break new frontiers for the artform. Including his trips to the David Letterman program as well as Harvey’s battle with cancer, this is a most unconventional narrative. That the story sounds so ridiculously far-fetched is part of why it’s so fascinating.
In the lead roles Giamatti and Davis are exceptional. These are such interesting characters for a picture to explore, and Pulcini and Springer Berman thankfully don’t rely on traditional biopic storytelling devices to do so. Expertly blending in footage of the real Pekar and Brabner that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, a visual style inherited from the pages of the original comics, and a wonderful sense of danger that the entire experiment could collapse at any minute make American Splendor a true original.
American Splendor is available on Quickflix.