by Marty Demarest

I love movies about sub-cultures. Whether it's about drug users, transvestites or fundamentalists, you can sign me up for any movie that takes a look at a small group that the rest of the world tries to forget. There's something defiant, and comforting, in a group of people that flips the rest of the world the finger and gets on with their lives, no matter how different that makes them.

Harvey Pekar is a man who belongs to one of the largest sub-cultures around: average people. There isn't anything extraordinary about Pekar, at least fundamentally. And the fact that he seems to resist making himself feel or seem special has helped him to become a spokesman for the ordinary.

Pekar, who writes jazz criticism when he can find the work, has developed a niche market writing comic books about his life. But since Pekar can't draw, he's hired other artists -- like R. Crumb -- to draw the art for him. The results, like the film American Splendor, are both blisteringly funny and uncomfortably realistic.

In adapting Pekar's work for film, co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have followed a similarly unconventional path. Since Pekar's only real story is the story of his life, the directors chose to cast an actor (Paul Giamatti) as Pekar, and an actress (Hope Davis) as his wife (who also writes comic books about her life). But they also let the real couple come onscreen, to comment on their artistic representations. Seeing real people watching a couple of actors playing them is strange. It's also very funny. Much of the rest of the film is dreary. I think we're meant to experience Pekar's strange and ordinary world in its full splendor.

However, despite all of the film's outside-of-the-box style, at its heart this is a movie about people who don't insist that they're special. While it lasts, it's charming. When the movie stops, however, and you open up Entertainment Weekly to find a comic by Pekar, or see him on television (or catch him this April at Spokane's Get Lit! literary festival), you realize he's a celebrity. Is being average his act? If it is, then American Splendor is one of the strangest films ever. It's about a man acting as a man who's acting as a man. Only in America is our ordinary this extraordinary.

Publication date: 02/19/04

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