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American Splendor - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

AMERICAN Splendor, a biographical movie about Cleveland's autobiographical comic writer, Harvey Pekar, was named the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival and looks set to be among the more talked about independent films of the year.

Starring Paul Giamatti (of Planet of the Apes fame) and Hope Davis, the movie has been directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and tells the true story of a file clerk working at a Cleveland Veterans hospital, who, on the side, struggles to achieve success as a writer with comic books about his experiences. The film combines both dramatic and documentary elements.

Originally made as a HBO release, the film will now be distributed in cinemas owing to its Sundance success (always a catalyst for getting quality, indie movies on to the big screen) and is now being backed by Fine Line Features.

Announcing the deal recently, Colin Callender, president, HBO Films, said: "We're very proud that HBO Films was able to help Shari and Robert realize their vision of American Splendor. It's an extraordinary directorial debut...

"It was also very exciting to see the reception it received at Sundance from audiences and critics alike. We're delighted to be in business with Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne, Mark Ordesky, Russell Schwartz and the entire New Line and Fine Line team. They share our passion for Harvey Pekar's story; and we look forward to working together with them to bring American Splendor to the big screen."

Mark Ordesky, president of Fine Line Features, added: "American Splendor is brilliant, exciting, genre-bending filmmaking. HBO is on the leading edge of ground-breaking independent cinema, and we are excited to help bring that vision to a wide audience."

The film is said to immerse audiences in the life and worldview of Harvey Pekar: file clerk, working-class intellectual, obsessive compulsive collector, and creator of the seminal autobiographical comic book series 'American Splendor'.

For over two decades, the pages of American Splendor have documented the mundane tribulations, random experiences and cultural enthusiasms that make up Pekar's day-to-day existence in his native Cleveland, Ohio, and the movie is the saga of a working-class everyman who found love, family and a creative voice through comic books.

Like its namesake comic, the film focuses on the large and small moments in the life of its prickly hero, and offers not one, but several illustrations of Harvey Pekar: the Harvey of the main narrative, portrayed by Paul Giamatti; a 2D animated Harvey; and the real Harvey, past (via archival footage) and present.

The result has been described by critics at Sundance as a wildly 'inventive film that captures Pekar's voice in all its simple, honest, and cantankerous human scope'.

In accepting the Sundance award, co-directors Springer Berman and Pulcini commented: "I think this award can safely be called the true revenge of the nerds."

It also marks HBO's second foray into theatrical distribution, following the highly successful Real Women Have Curves, which is currently in release at selected cinemas in London.

 

US reaction

Having made such a splash at Sundance, it is little surprise to find the US critics falling over themselves to deliver a positive verdict.

Leading the way is Entertainment Weekly, which awarded it the maximum A, and declared that it is 'one of the best movies of the year'.

Likewise, the New York Post, which awarded it three and a half out of four, and concluded that it forms 'the splendid climax to one of the best Summers in years on the art-film circuit'.

Rolling Stone awarded it similar marks, before predicting that it will be 'one of the best times you'll have at the movies this year'.

While the New York Times referred to it, merely, as 'extraordinary'.

Newsday declared that it is 'funny, clever, tender and wry, while always holding true to its ongoing identity crisis', while Variety felt that 'it's a profound tribute to lives lived on the fringes of society -- to the introspective loners who are the most observant chroniclers of our times'.

Film Threat stated that it is 'one of the most wildly original, dryly comical, and smartly structured films ever created'.

And Village Voice referred to it as 'a jazzy and humane synthesis of the comic books that Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar has for 25 years fashioned from the dross of his daily life'.

The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, wrote that 'the two documentarians in their feature debut hit an unbelievably rich vein of drama, humor, love, whimsy, psychological turmoil, commonplace travails, genuine trauma and artistic triumph'.

And the glowing reviews keep on coming....

The Los Angeles Times wrote that 'Giamatti looks nothing like Pekar either in person or in his various cartoon guises, but in a warmly sympathetic performance he brings the character to grubby, soulful life'.

While Film Journal International observed that 'seldom have grouches, misfits and, yes, nerds seemed so endearing'.

And the New York Observer stated that 'there's a tremendous amount of cultural vitality out there in the land of the losers; American Splendor is one of the first and best films to capitalize fully on this phenomenon'.

The Cranky Critic, meanwhile, urged cinema-goers to 'discover the extraordinary in the just plain ordinary existence of a just plain ordinary guy', adding that American Splendor is 'a stunning film'.

And rounding off this overview is USA Today, which really should be the clincher in helping film buffs in the UK rush to see it, when it is released over here.

It wrote that American Splendor is 'the best movie about society's untrendiest since Ghost World exactly two years ago'.

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