AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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American Splendor
Director: Robert Pulcini (Dir)
Release Date:   15 Aug 2003
Duration (in mins):  100, 102 or 105
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Cast: Chris Ambrose  (Superman)
  Joey Krajcar  (Batman)
  Josh Hutcherson  (Robin)
 

Summary: In 1975, Harvey Pekar, a disgruntled, highly intelligent yet largely self-educated man, works as a file clerk at a Cleveland Veterans’ Administration Hospital. Depressed by his lackluster existence, Harvey is also burdened with ill health and the imminent failure of his second marriage. When his wife, who obtained her doctoral degree with Harvey’s support, prepares to leave him, Harvey tries to beg her to stay, but a nodule on his vocal chords prevents him from speaking in more than a raspy whisper. Harvey, who suffers from an obsessive desire to collect things, has a huge assortment of comic books and jazz records. Attempting to assuage the pain of his divorce, Harvey scours thrift stores and garage sales for rare records, and remembers how, in 1962, he met artist Robert Crumb at a garage sale. The men’s mutual love of comics and jazz cemented their friendship, and Harvey, impressed by Crumb’s irreverent view of life, urged him to publish a comic book he had drawn. Crumb eventually moved to San Francisco and became one of the leaders of the “underground comics” movement, which sought to present adult themes in a more realistic manner than traditional comics. Crumb still visits Cleveland and Harvey, and during one visit, Harvey wishes that he could trade the growth that comes from bad experiences for a little happiness. When Crumb complains that he is tired of the comics “scene,” Harvey chides him, reminding him that he is making a living doing something he loves, as opposed to being stuck in a meaningless job. One day at work, Harvey reads the file of a deceased veteran who lived his entire life in Cleveland and worked as a clerk. Determined to make more of himself, Harvey goes home to create a comic of his own, but, unable to draw, must resort to illustrating his work with stick figures. The frustrated Harvey gives up and goes to the grocery store, but there is inspired by his irritation about standing in line and stays up all night completing his manuscript. Harvey shows his work to Crumb, explaining that he believes comics can be a true art form, and that he wants to write about everyday life, because “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Delighted with Harvey’s deeply felt, sometimes eccentric and anti-Yuppie observations, Crumb offers to illustrate his manuscript, which thrills Harvey so much that he suddenly regains the full strength of his voice. When Harvey’s first comic, entitled American Splendor , is published, he shows it to his co-workers, including Mr. Boats and Toby Radloff, who are pleased for him. Over the next seven issues and into the 1980s, Harvey continues to write about his daily life and includes his friends in his stories, which are illustrated by Crumb and other artists. Harvey receives recognition and praise from critics throughout the country, but is still financially dependent upon his VA job. One weekend, Harvey runs into Alice Quinn, an old school friend, and despite her delighted statement that he is famous, Harvey grumbles about his loneliness and pain. Harvey spends the rest of the weekend wallowing in his loneliness, but also contemplating how sweet life is. Meanwhile at the Cosmic Comics shop in Wilmington, Delaware, owner Joyce Brabner upbraids her partner, Rand, for selling her personal issue of American Splendor before she could read it. The intellectual but somewhat eccentric Joyce writes to Harvey to request a copy of the comic, and soon the two begin a correspondence. Their letters turn into phone calls, and eventually, Harvey asks Joyce to come to Cleveland for a face-to-face meeting. Joyce expresses her hesitation, as each artist who draws Harvey for his comic portrays him differently, but Harvey promises that he will try to be anyone she wants him to be. Despite her concern that she is a “notorious reformer,” Joyce agrees, and after an awkward first date, goes to Harvey’s apartment with him. Although their first kiss is immediately followed by Joyce throwing up, she realizes that they have much in common and tells Harvey that they should “skip the whole courtship thing” and get married. Surprised but pleased, Harvey agrees, and Joyce moves to Cleveland. Their marriage is rocky, however, with Joyce becoming frustrated over Harvey’s obsessive collecting and cluttered apartment, while Harvey is upset because Joyce does not seek work. Their life appears to take an upturn when a Los Angeles producer stages a play based on Harvey’s comic, which now includes Joyce as a regular character. Upon their return to Cleveland, however, Joyce expresses her desire to start a family, to which Harvey, who informed Joyce at their first meeting that he had had a vasectomy, is vehemently opposed. Their relationship worsens, as Joyce grows so depressed that she refuses to get out of bed. Joyce finally arises, however, when word comes that Harvey is wanted for an appearance on David Letterman’s television talk show. While Letterman is baffled by Harvey’s abrasive manner, Joyce is disgusted, feeling that Harvey is compromising his counterculture edge by pandering to the talk show host. Letterman’s audience loves Harvey, however, and he returns for several more appearances on the show. Although he enjoys the money from his appearances, Harvey feels that the show does little for the sale of his work, and that he is being used “for laughs.” A year passes, until one day, Harvey decides that he has had enough, especially when the publicity surrounding his comics results in Toby getting a job endorsing MTV, which, in reality, ridicules him. While Harvey is growing increasingly cynical, Joyce has begun seeking deeper meaning in her life and decides to travel to Jerusalem to write about children living in war-torn areas. During Joyce’s absence, Harvey discovers a lump in his groin, and his resulting anxiety, as well as his loneliness, causes him to lash out so harshly during one of his Letterman appearances that he is banned from the show. Upon Joyce’s return, she is pleased that Harvey is through with the show, but soon learns about his tumor. When the couple visits the doctor, he confirms that Harvey has cancer. Although Harvey declares that he wants to give up and die, Joyce insists that he should distance himself from the experience by writing a comic about it and documenting every detail of his treatment. Joyce hires artist Fred to illustrate the story, on which she collaborates with Harvey, who has agreed to the project. Due to his divorce, Fred is forced to bring his young daughter Danielle to his meetings with Joyce and Harvey, but Harvey is pleased to see how well Joyce and Danielle get along. During Harvey’s long, painful chemotherapy, he continues to document his progress, although he begins to wonder who he really is. A year later, Harvey and Joyce attend a book signing of their graphic novel, Our Cancer Year , which wins several book awards. They are relieved to learn soon after that Harvey is completely cancer-free, and Harvey muses on the fact that his cancer brought them Danielle, who moved in with them after Fred decided that they could care for her better than he. Although Harvey was nervous about being a father, he quickly adapts to and enjoys his new role. Time continues to pass, and Harvey ponders his life with Joyce, which is fruitful but still fraught with arguments, and the joy brought to them by Danielle, tempered by the problems caused by her Attention Deficit Disorder. Harvey finally retires from his job, and at the celebratory party, while Harvey receives a hug from Danielle and Joyce, the newest issue of American Splendor , entitled Our Movie Year , sits on his desk. 

Distribution Company: HBO Films
Fine Line Features
Production Company: Good Machine
Director: Robert Pulcini (Dir)
  Shari Springer Berman (Dir)
  Chip Signore (1st asst dir)
  Meryl Stavitz (2d asst dir)
  Eric Lasko (2d 2d asst dir)
  Matt G. Sheets (Addl 2d asst dir)
Producer: Ted Hope (Prod)
  Julia King (Assoc prod)
  Christine Kunewa Walker (Line prod)
  Declan Baldwin (New York unit line prod)
Writer: Robert Pulcini (Wrt)
  Shari Springer Berman (Wrt)

Subject Major: Authors
  Joyce Brabner
  Comic books
  Cynics
  Fame
  Marriage
  Harvey Pekar
 
Subject Minor: Ambition
  Artists
  Cancer
  Cats
  Clerks
  Cleveland (OH)
  Collectors and collecting
  Depression, Mental
  Divorce
  Foster children
  Friendship
  Hospitals
  Jazz music
  Jellybeans
  Late Night with David Letterman (Television program)
  Loneliness
  Plays
  Retirement
  Spendthrifts
  Tea
  Television commercials
  Television programs
  Veterans' hospitals

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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