American Splendor (2003): Highlight of Sundance Film Fest Starring Paul Giamatti

873xvorvv6qSundance Film Festival 2003 (World Premiere Dramatic Competition)–Shari Springer Roman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor, an edgy, original movie that promotes the cause of American indie cinema–and illuminates its raison d’etre in the best sense of the term–was without a doubt the best film in the 2003 dramatic competition.

 

It’s often said that the documentaries are more reliable than the features at Sundance, and it’s often true. However, this year, the best features either concerned real-life individuals and/or borrowed conventions from the non-fictional arena. This was certainly the case of the finest film I saw all week: American Splendor, made by HBO Films and still looking for theatrical distribution.

A cross between “Crumb” and “Ghost World” (both directed by Terry Zwigoff), American Splendor is set in the lower depth of Cleveland. It’s a magnificent tale that interweaves comic books and actual actors, real life and reel life, animation and live cinematography. Nonetheless, magically, this blend of styles and conventions results in one of the most touching and coherent indies to be seen around.

Set in a blue-collar milieu (a novelty in its own right, since most American movies revolve around the middle or upper-middle class), it’s the story of Harvey Pekar in all his gloom, grime, and longing. Brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti as a sad, scowling man, a loser who rescues himself through comic art, the film also features a darkly humorous portrait of Pekar’s courtship and marriage to longtime wife Joyce.

The greatness of “American Splendor,” which is a feature debut, lies in the fact that the directors (husband and wife team) have found an inventive and sympathetic way to depict the life of a man who found art in the most ordinary conditions.

Here is a movie based on a comic strip book, which, unlike most such Hollywood efforts, surpasses the source material, resulting in a smart, witty, and touching meditation about life and art.

Like all good movies, “American Splendor” left critics ecstatically hopeful at the possibilities of movies–and possibilities of life.

The movie won the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance in a unanimous vote (I know; I was a member of the jury that year).

Later, “American Splendor” was deservedly honored with the Best Adapted Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America (WGA).