AMERICAN SPLENDOR — *** 1/2 — Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, James McCaffrey, Madylin Sweeten; also featuring interviews with and narration by Harvey Pekar; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, ethnic slurs, brief sex); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.
"American Splendor" will appeal to some of the same movie audiences that took to "Ghost World." And no, it's not just because both movies were based on independent comic book stories.
It's because both films feature a dark, almost nihilistic outlook and a cynical, sarcastic brand of humor — which are offset by a surprising sweetness, tenderness and affection for the characters.
And yes, that probably means this well-acted comedy-drama is more likely to find its success with film festival crowds and art-house aficionados rather than the broader section of film patrons, which is less likely to warm to the movie's sometimes-uneasy mix of fictional and pseudo-documentary elements (the real Harvey Pekar pops up in brief interviews and even narrates portions of the movie).
The narrative, "fictional" portion is based on stories from Pekar's long-running "American Splendor" comic book series, as well as the graphic novel "Our Cancer Year," which was co-written with his wife, author and activist Joyce Brabner.
Character actor Paul Giamatti stars as Pekar, the Cleveland oddball who created a new sub-genre of comics (autobiographical) when he started self-publishing his own magazine, which featured stories drawn by such maverick artists as Robert Crumb (played in the film by James Urbaniak).
"American Splendor" chronicles how Pekar began his self-publishing venture — while still working as a file-room clerk in a VA hospital — and details his courtship of Brabner (Hope Davis), one of his comic's biggest fans.
Stylistically, filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini try to imitate comic book and pop art style (some frames look like comic-book panels and bear thought balloons or expository transitional phrases).
But the integration of real-life elements and fictional re-creations gets to be a bit much. For example, the film uses Pekar's real appearances on David Letterman, book-ending those sequences with bits that feature Giamatti. It's jarring, to put it mildly.
Still, Giamatti is terrific, managing to emulate perfectly Pekar's trademark brooding and slightly pop-eyed stare. And the underrated Davis impresses with a performance that is in some ways stronger.
"American Splendor" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, crude humor and references to sexual and other bodily functions, use of ethnic slurs and brief sexual contact. Running time: 104 minutes.