Real Stories: American Splendor, The Secret Lives of Dentists, The Weather Underground

I spent much of my last post complaining about the lack of exceptional, heart-stopping, borderline brilliant films in theaters this year. Since then, I’ve seen three new movies, all of them good-to-spectacular—one an adaptation of a novella, another a documentary, and a third that blurs boundaries between documentary and fiction to create a strikingly original composite.

That third film is American Splendor, an adaptation (of sorts) of a comic book of the same name. The comic's author is Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk and jazz aficionado whom, in the mid-70s, came across this simple but significant theorem: “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”. Seeking a creative outlet, he began writing an underground comic about the beauty and ugliness he saw around him, all of life’s irritations and mendacities (and occasional pleasures) rendered in sort of a plain-spoken poetry. He couldn’t draw, but was fortunate enough to have a friend like Robert Crumb to visually translate his prose.

In adapting Pekar’s life to the screen, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini create a universe true to their subject’s spirit while opening it up in fresh, illuminating ways not entirely possible on the page. The bulk of the film is a biopic, with Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis (unrecognizable in oversize glasses and a long black wig) as his third wife, Joyce Brabner. However, in this film the real world interacts. Pekar himself not only narrates, he appears throughout; sometimes on a sound stage where we witness him narrating or viewing the filming of a scene, other times as a substitute for Giamatti in the re-telling of his life. That’s not to mention the occasional animated Pekar who has seemingly been cut out of one of his comics, or the two stage actors whom portray Pekar and Brabner in a mid-80’s LA stage production of the comic.

This blending of fact and fiction, what’s real and what’s invented, is handled with such grace, wit and discovery that the result never approaches the cheapness of a stunt. I found myself often on the edge of my seat, giddy to the point of tears to see what would happen next. There’s one scene with Giamatti playing Pekar carrying on conversation about jellybeans with Toby (Judah Friedlander), his unapologetically nerdy co-worker. The scene ends, and Giamatti and Friedlander walk off the set, its artificiality revealed as the camera pulls away. However, the real Harvey and Toby are on the sound stage. As Giamatti and Friedlander take their seats in the background, they observe the persons they’ve been portraying having their own conversation about jellybeans. This set-up proposes a sea of questions: What’s scripted? What’s improvised? What is the essence of reality as a basis for art?

These are questions American Splendor explores, if not necessarily provides concrete answers for. This alone makes for a fascinating film. But don’t forget the lead’s pitch perfect performances (Giamatti and Davis have never been better) and a great supporting cast (who knew James Urbaniak would make such a superb Crumb?). American Splendor more than lives up to the ideal of Pekar’s comic; it finds transcendence and complexity in most commonplace things, and it’s as entertaining as it is provocative.


Davis also stars in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Alan Rudolph’s smart, harrowing adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novella, The Age of Grief. Campbell Scott and her are husband and wife dentists who have their own successful practice and three young daughters. When Scott accidentally witnesses her kissing another man (without her knowing what he saw), it sets in motion much anguish and tension, mounting, exploding, and simmering in phases as in everyday life, with all of its family dinners and influenza epidemics. Davis is fine and brings subtlety to the difficult role of a woman obviously cheating on her husband and, as we discover, obviously disillusioned with her marriage and seemingly perfect life.

However, this is clearly Scott’s film. He gives a breakthrough performance as a man hurt and humiliated when he finds out more information than he needed to know. The stiffness of Scott’s earlier performances gives way here to rationality coupled with stubbornness and an all-too-real vulnerability. The script is intelligent and honest enough to keep everything from devolving into TV Movie of The Week territory; the most cathartic moments are never overblown but often liberating. The only time it threatens to veer off course is when Denis Leary appears as one of Scott’s patients, who gradually surfaces as a projection of Scott’s superego. Leary is well cast, and his sardonic humor is much appreciated at particular moments, but hebecomes a distraction by the film’s final third. No matter; the rest of The Secret Lives of Dentists is always honest and often thrilling, its hallucinations and sobering stretches in tandem with a creatively employed soundtrack that swells and levels off in fittingly operatic proportions.


With an abundance of archival footage and captivating interviews, The Weather Underground documents the radical/terrorist group of the same name. Lashing out first against the US involvement in Vietnam in the late ‘60s, then against general injustice to the counterculture and minorities throughout the ‘70s, the group sidestepped the nonviolent protests of Martin Luther King and aspired to the action and anger of the Black Panthers, only to fail to find widespread support and become increasingly muddled in their moral capacity, and eventually, disillusioned in what they could accomplish. The film, with its liberal amount of graphic, anti-war footage, is unquestionably on the group’s side, although it doesn’t shy away from or examine their more unsavory tactics and practices either. What’s most interesting about the film is how prescient it all is. The country is arguably as divided today as it was 30-35 years ago, only a group like the Weathermen seem strictly of their own time. You watch The Weather Underground wandering how much has really changed, and how much of the zeitgeist has simply gone beneath the radar of a still homogenous press and culture.