American Splendor, the new movie about underground comix writer Harvey Pekar, is Crumb Lite. It's funny (funnier than the one Pekar comic I've read--#15), but the filmmakers have succeeded mainly in domesticating a talented crank. The actor who plays Harvey is smoother, dopier, more like a sitcom actor; the actress who plays his wife is fetching even with ironed hair and nerdygirl glasses. Think back to Crumb for a sec: the unstinting, voyeuristic interviews with the artist's damaged brothers, the excruciating footage of Crumb talking to an ex-girlfriend, the whole porn magazine/acid casualty vibe of a failed counterculture. That film took you to the edge. By contrast, the edgiest moment in Splendor is footage of the real Pekar appearing on Letterman. He's unkempt, he's unpredictable, he fights back.

The most compromised moment in the film is the restaging of Pekar's final appearance on Late Night, where he told off Dave and launched into a jeremiad against NBC's military-contractor owner, GE. As the movie sets it up, it's all explained as a byproduct of Harvey's personal problems. The scene is filmed with the camera behind his chair, looking out at the shocked reactions of the audience. His actual rant is sliced into bits and pieces, to "denote the passage of time" but also making it less intelligible. Worse, the scene is intercut with shots of Harvey's friends and co-workers watching their TVs at home in dismay. You can't help thinking this is how the infotainment world (indie film division) processes someone just a little too individualistic. They give him the world (this'll do more business than Crumb, I expect) but none-too-subtly muffle his voice.

- tom moody 8-23-2003 8:58 pm

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