Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Movie Review

"Now there's a reliable disappointment."

That is not a description of American Splendor, the uniquely styled biopic starring Paul Giammati as the comic book author Harvey Pekar.

Pekar's anti-hero works as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital, who -- either fittingly or ironically, I'm not sure -- cannot organize his ratty apartment to save his life, or either of his first two marriages. The character is based on an actual file clerk for a Cleveland VA hospital with a similarly organizationally-challenged home life named Harvey Pekar.

So the movie is about a real-life comic book writer whose comics are about his real life experiences, whose subject essentially co-stars with the actor who plays him. Further blurring the line between biopic and biographical documentary are the intercuts between Giamatti playing Pekar and the man himself on such occasions as his appearances on the David Letterman show. We see Giamatti in the green room before the segment and then we see Pekar himelf in footage from the original broadcast.

Pekar also provides the expository narration -- when the actor tells part of the story as we see a shot of him walking down a street, for instance. We see Giamatti but we hear Pekar. In case it wasn't clear enough, the movie cuts from a shot of Giamatti to one of Pekar in a studio as some assistant asks him if he needs some water. Pekar also appears again throughout the film in interviews about his life.

The quote above comes from a scene in which Giamatti as Pekar catches a mirror reflection of himself half-dressed. It sums his life to that point when his connection to comic books is collecting them. Pekar also collects jazz records. A fellow afficianado he knows happens to illustrate comics for a living. One day Pekar decides that he's going to make something of his miserable life by making a comic out of it. He shows his friend a stick-figure rendition of his everyman comic book character. The friend thinks it's a brilliant idea and asks to illustrate it.

The new career doesn't pay enough that Pekar can quit his file clerk job. It does lead him to his third (and still, as of the making of the film) wife, a cashier in a comic book store in Wilmington, Delaware.

Giamatti does a terrific job with what had to be a daunting role. "See, Paul, the guy you're playing? He's going to be in the film, too." He didn't have that problem when he played John Adams in that HBO mini-series. Maybe that was the attraction!

While we're discussing comic book characters enshrined on film, I saw the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight yesterday. It was a disappointment only in the sense that it was hyped as the best thing since electric light. It wasn't that. All the best moments of Heath Ledger's Joker I had already seen in the trailers. In fact, the editor used a different take of Ledger's "kill the Batman" line in the trailers than in the film.

Although one critic called Maggie Gyllenhaal a happy improvement over Katie Holmes in the role of Bruce Wayne's love interest Rachel, I missed Mrs. Cruise's beautiful elegance that Gyllenhall sorely lacks. This stood out in the scene where the Joker, stunned at the sight of Rachel, addresses her as "Hello, Beautiful." Gyllenhaal isn't gorgeous enough for that line to work.

The movie runs over two-and-a-half hours. The story never drags but you can feel the length. The more than 15 minutes of trailers shown before the feature began probably didn't help. It was worth the time and I'll buy it when it comes out on DVD. Or at least when it goes on sale sometime after it comes out on DVD.

I might have to look for American Splendor, too -- both the movie and the comic of the same name.

In unrelated news, my stat counter tells me that a lot of people are curious about Royal Bastards.

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