American Splendor is a delight, and easily the best Oscar-nominated movie I've seen so far this season. (There are plenty I haven't yet seen, of course.) I often complain about films that seem too proud of the skills on display; I am resolutely unimpressed with skill for its own sake (unless your name is Orson Welles). One of the many marvelous things about American Splendor is that the extraordinary trickiness of the film's structure is truly the only way to tell its story. After all, how do you translate such source material in a movie, except as it is done here?
American Splendor's source materials are the comic books Harvey Pekar writes about his life. Also, the source materials are the actual lives of Harvey and his friends and family. Harvey is an interesting comic artist, in that he can't draw to save his life. Instead, his comics are drawn by a group of artists, all of whom draw Harvey in their own idiosyncratic ways. Thus, the source materials for the film are not only Harvey and Harvey's comix, but also all of the various permutations of comix-Harvey. The filmmakers deal with this potential mess by adding still more layers: the film is about Harvey Pekar as he is played (brilliantly) by Paul Giamatti (son of Bart, the late baseball commissioner); it is about Harvey Pekar the real person, who appears on occasion throughout the film, sometimes as a narrator, sometimes as an interview subject; it is about the Harvey Pekars of the comix, who also appear, sometimes animated and sometimes as still drawings. And, since despite his curmudgeonly demeanor, Harvey Pekar has genuine affection for the people in his life, it is also about each of those people in each of their own permutations. So Harvey's wife Joyce Brabner appears in interviews, and Hope Davis appears (brilliantly) as the character "Joyce Brabner," and once in awhile we see the comix Joyce ... ad infinitum for all the people in Harvey's life.
It sounds dreadfully confusing, but in fact the movie is practically seamless (and when the seams show, you know they are supposed to be visible). It's also a perfect filmic representation of the Pekar source material: Harvey writes about his life, he strives to be honest to his lower-middle class existence, he never shies away from the postmodern ironies that abound in a comic book written by Harvey Pekar about "Harvey Pekar," and the movie is loyal to that vision of the artistic representation of an "ordinary" life. As in the comix, the movie American Splendor celebrates the ordinary, not by elevating it as if Harvey Pekar was a superhero in his own comic, but instead by showing how vital and complex the ordinary life can be, when the people leading those lives are reflective about themselves and their place in the world. "Harvey Pekar" is a superhero because he is not a superhero.
Everything works in this film. The casting is excellent, as is obvious (since we get to see the characters as the actors portray them, right next to the actual people on which the characters are based), but the acting is at the highest level as well ... you might be tempted to think the casting director did all the work by choosing the right actors for the right characters, but Giamatti and Davis in particular imbue Harvey and Joyce with truth that goes beyond surface similarities.
American Splendor is only nominated for one Oscar, that being for best screenplay based on another source. This is sad ... just for example, this is a better movie by far than Seabiscuit (nominated for Best Picture), Giamatti is much better than Jude Law in Cold Mountain (nominated for Best Actor), Davis is better than Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), and surely writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (and Pulcini again for editing) deserve to be nominated for their work. I've got plenty of movies yet to see, but so far, American Splendor is my choice for best movie of 2003. Ten on a scale of ten.