Sunday, September 28, 2003

FEEL-GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR. On the entertainment front, I finally caught "American Splendor" last night. A friend had complained to me that the movie doesn't give enough attention Harvey Pekar's real innovation -- the quotidian, working-class life stories in comic-strip form. Those are excellent, of course, and the most interesting of them aren't about Pekar at all -- they usually start with Harvey running into a buddy, and the buddy telling a long story. (My favorite, drawn by Gary Dumm, is about a guy who accompanies his pal to a job interview, decides to fill out an application himself because he's bored, sets the interviewer's trash basket on fire and still gets the job, and quits after one day -- "They wanted me to be a human screwdriver. Fuck that! The next day I went over the wall.")

But the movie's about Pekar. His biographical details are old news to many of us, though it is fun to see them fleshed out on screen. (The scenes of Pekar and Crumb giving birth to the "American Splendor" books are catnip to aging bohemians like me.) The small, private agonies and ecstacies of the old crank, though, are the real meat and drink. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar gnarled -- his default facial expression is a sneer. To me, this seemed like an act at first -- like Pekar's hollering prole routine seemed on Letterman. But when I got used to it, it was perfectly charming. His sneer, it turns out, isn't contempt, but disappointment, with himself and the world (a disappointment made understandable by the wonderfully cruddy Cleveland locales). But sometimes he's not disappointed. Things go well with the books; he finds love; he beats cancer; he takes pleasure from his peculiar friends and from the little stories they give him.

I think it's a good thing to be reminded that you don't have to be a grinning, positive-thinking idiot to get something out of life. The movie's being marketed as an offbeat thing ("Weird, different, fascinating!" says Moviechicks), and some of the unusual real Harvey/movie Harvey film tricks point that way, but at bottom it's about a real guy who manages to do alright without being like Rocky or Rudy or any of those fist-pumping clowns. You could call it a "feel-good" movie, in the old usage favored by Hollywood blurb writers. I don't see that one in movie ads anymore, come to think of it; they're more likely to advertise their entertainments as a "thrill ride" -- great synergy for the afilliated theme-park attractions, I guess. I don't like rides, but I don't mind feeling good.

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