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What's the story?
Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a file clerk in a veteran's hospital who writes about his monotonous life in comic books. He lives in the most ordinary of apartments -- dank, drab and cluttered. He has the most ordinary of frustrations -- a woman in front of him at the grocery store's check-out counter takes too long, a look in the mirror provides "a reliable disappointment." He faces the most minor and the most severe obstacles and problems with the same grumpy pessimism. Yet Pekar recognizes the complexity of ordinary life. His insights and artistic sensibilities do not translate into a capacity for tolerance or intimacy, though. Pekar is selfish and insensitive. He does not want to be alone but he is too unpleasant and petty to live with anyone else, until Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a fan who impulsively decides to marry him after a disastrous first date, turns out to be his ideal life companion. Like Pekar, she is relentlessly honest about her own quirks, shortcomings, and pathologies and those of others.
Is it any good?
The characters in AMERICAN SPLENDOR are so weird and their lifestyles are so odd that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they are real people or cartoon characters. The movie brilliantly plays upon this, switching fluidly from comic book drawings to actors, to actual footage of the real people involved, then back again. The real-life characters appear as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the story and on the movie itself. The real Pekar is, of course, reliably disappointed. Footage of Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show is spliced cleverly with surrounding scenes in which actors depict the events leading up to and following the show.
Pekar shows us that when you look closely enough, there is drama even in the uneventful life of a file clerk. Pekar rails against his loneliness, or talks about the sweetness of life in a way that shows he is not all that different from the rest of us. He raises himself from squalor by teaming up with a friend, the famous artist R. Crumb, to produce a whole new type of comic book. He has life-threatening medical problems that require him to confront his own mortality. And in his own way, he loves, deeply. The overall effect of the movie is not one of slapstick but of earthy, gritty reality. Davis and Giamatti are brave, funny, heartbreaking, and simply magnificent. So are the real Brabner and Pekar.
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