AMERICAN SPLENDOR is about the life of one, Harvey Pekar (“Pee-car”), a grumpy counter-culture, anti-establishment file clerk working at the Cleveland V.A. Hospital. One day in the mid 1960s, while rummaging through a garage sale for jazz records, Harvey meets budding cartoonist Robert Crumb, who becomes famous doing counter-culture comic strips and moves to San Francisco.
Always depressed and pessimistic, Harvey becomes inspired by his friend Crumb’s success and decides to do his own comic book based on his own life, including the people he meets at work and on the street. Although Harvey can’t draw, his friend Crumb is impressed with the stories Harvey has to tell, which have a peculiar urban humor to them when mixed with Harvey’s dour worldview. Working with Crumb and other illustrators, Harvey publishes AMERICAN SPLENDOR #1 in 1976.
Surprisingly, there is a small market for Harvey’s realistic, but humorous, tales of working-class life in Cleveland. One of his fans, Joyce Brabner, writes him a letter. Joyce’s sardonic persona clicks with Harvey’s. Soon, they get married, and Joyce finds herself accompanying Harvey on a series of trips to New York City, where Harvey makes several guest appearances on the “Late Night with David Letterman” show. A cancer scare brings into their life a bright little girl named Danielle, whom they eventually adopt.
Through it all, Harvey continues to work as a file clerk at the V.A. Hospital, until his retirement in 2001.
Character actor Paul Giamatti gives a funny, poignant performance as Harvey Pekar. Hope Davis plays Harvey’s opinionated wife Joyce. Judah Friedlander delivers an hilarious performance as Harvey’s co-worker Toby, a self-proclaimed nerd who speaks in a clipped, nasal monotone. The movie also uses documentary footage of the real Harvey Pekar being interviewed by David Letterman and for the film, as well as illustrations from Harvey’s comic books and the illustrated book he did with Joyce about his battle with cancer, OUR CANCER YEAR.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR the movie is not a political film, but it shows Harvey making a few pointed political comments against capitalism and against a large company with ties to the American military. He also tells his wife Joyce that he doesn’t really want to have any children. Despite this anti-establishment attitude, the movie is really about how Harvey gains both a wife and a family. In fact, the movie’s ending features a poignant scene of Harvey walking Danielle to her school bus, and a touching scene at Harvey’s retirement party where he, Joyce, and Danielle share a hug. In the end, therefore, Harvey’s love of comic books brings him the “bourgeois,” family values that his politics and his grumpy, pessimistic outlook on life rejects.
The reason for why this may be so is not evident from the movie. The Bible tells us, however, that God has established a system of truth and morality which transcends politics, culture, class, and ethnicity. Thus, even the heathen unconsciously seeks after the things of God, and most people with non-Christian worldviews have to incorporate some biblical principles in their thinking to make sense of reality.
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SUMMARY: AMERICAN SPLENDOR is a true story about a grumpy file clerk who gains a wife, an adopted child, and a bit of fame when he publishes an ongoing comic book series about his life. AMERICAN SPLENDOR ultimately paints a positive portrait of one unique man and his family, but it contains plenty of strong foul language.
(H, Acap, AP, B, LLL, N, A, M) Humanist worldview about a grumpy counter-culture, anti-establishment comic book writer who gripes about the world, including a few brief comments against capitalism, the sameness of American cities, the 1980s, yuppies, and a large company with ties to the American military, but whose life ultimately reflects some of the “bourgeois,” family values he apparently rejects; about 39 obscenities, including a few “f” words, 10 strong profanities, and woman gets sick and has to vomit; no violence; no sex but several references to man’s vasectomy; upper male nudity; alcohol use; no smoking; and, protagonist is perpetually grumpy, which sometimes leads to rude behavior.