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So neurotically happy together: Davis and Giamatti in American Splendor.

Working-Class Genius
By Shawn Stone

American Splendor
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Harvey Pekar represents the triumph of the American everyman—or at least one version of that elusive archetype. In turning his day-to-day life as a Cleveland hospital clerk into the American Splendor series of comic books, he’s the everyman as defiant author of his own story. The tedium and joy of his work, life, and love are revealed through clenched teeth: Pekar is a well-read autodidact disdainful of the academy, a neurotic malcontent of epic proportions, and, philosophically, a relentless pessimist.

You might think this might make for a gloomy evening at the movies. By no means—American Splendor is one of the most entertaining movies this year, as well as one of the most inventive.

The film more-or-less follows the progression of Pekar’s (Paul Giamatti) life from the midlife moment his second wife dumps him. He meets R. Crumb (James Urbaniak); he begins writing American Splendor; he begins attracting a following, which includes his eventual third wife, Joyce (Hope Davis); and he gets through each day, philosophically at war with himself and, most of the time, the rest of the world. Pekar’s key insight is his realization that he wouldn’t be any happier if he were wealthy, or if he had stayed in college and become a professional instead of a working stiff.

Giamatti gives an amazing performance as Pekar. Percolating with rage at stupidity, but sensitive enough with the people in his life that he rarely lapses into cruelty, Giamatti’s Pekar truly contains multitudes. It’s a great physical performance, too—from the first shots of him walking through the barren Cleveland landscape, Giamatti captures the kind and angry soul of Pekar. Davis is just as fine as the equally neurotic Joyce.

A big part of the brilliance of the movie is in the way the filmmakers engage one of the obvious aspects of Pekar’s comics: He writes them, but he doesn’t draw them. (The other part of the brilliance is in the beautifully constructed script codirectors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini crafted from the original comics.) Pekar’s stick-figure layouts and written instructions guide the artists in what they draw—honestly earning Pekar “auteur” status on the work—but every artist still presents drastically different Pekars. Directors Berman and Pulcini mimic this collaborative tension by alternating interviews with (and narration by) the real Pekar and his friends with the fiction film.

In one of the best scenes in the fiction part of the film, Pekar gets into a philosophical discussion with Toby (Judah Friedlander), a developmentally disabled coworker. When Toby offers him a bag of gourmet jelly beans—because he’s given up candy for Lent—smartass Pekar accepts them, and then starts giving Toby a hard time by punning “Lent” and “lentil.” Toby’s on to the game, however, and makes a strong defense of spirituality that earns Pekar’s (grudging, as usual) respect. The filmmakers then switch to the real Harvey and Toby having a discussion while Giamatti and Friedlander sit off to the side, watching.

You might think this would result in a kind of Brechtian alienation effect, but just the opposite happens. It brings the audience closer to the actors, their characters and the real people. The sly smile on Giamatti’s face as he watches the two interact is priceless. It’s a smile the audience can’t help but share.

Who Are We This Time?

Matchstick Men
Directed by Ridley Scott

Matchstick Men, the unexpectedly entertaining crime caper directed by Ridley Scott, has much the same appeal as Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, and offers Scott—whose recent films include the violently political Gladiator and Black Hawk Down—a similar opportunity to be done with heavy drama and concentrate on clever, character-driven high jinks. A matchstick man is a con man, or as Roy (Nicolas Cage), the film’s hapless protagonist likes to say, a con artist. Roy is certainly a nimble trickster; uncomfortable in his own skin to the point of phobia, he’s got a genuine talent for assuming false personas. His skill at improvisation comes in handy with the phone-sales scam he runs with his high-living “protégé,” Frank (Sam Rockwell). Although some minor glitches in Matchstick Men’s nifty plotting increase geometrically, the film is more gritty, unpredictable, and substantial than Spielberg’s cheeky morality tale.

At the sham office, it’s Frank’s job to reel in potential marks, while masterful Roy closes the deal. The irony is that this impressively smooth talker is actually a neurotic wreck who wallows in obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as keeping his wall-to-wall carpeting spotless and opening and closing doors three times per entry and exit. Another fount of perversity is that Roy’s maniacal attention to detail is what makes him a successful swindler. Under duress (and Roy considers being outdoors as distressing), he is subject to facial and vocal tics—“pygmies!” is a favorite outburst when specks of debris get into his home—making him an ideal vehicle for Cage, who specializes in intelligent losers undergoing nervous meltdowns. But this is a more restrained and sympathetic performance than Cage’s Oscar-nominated instability in Adaptation, and he uses Roy’s over-the-top anxiety to expose his humanity and repressed remorse as well as his bleakly funny foibles.

Roy is plunged into a frenzy of housecleaning and chain-smoking after dropping his medication down the drain. On Frank’s advice, he visits a shrink, the surprisingly insightful Dr. Klein (a supremely reassuring Bruce Altman). Through the doctor’s intervention, Roy discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), who subsequently shows up for an extended visit. Angela is as open and eager as Roy is closed off and cautious, yet the two happily bond over a small-time swindle. Roy is so rejuvenated by his daughter’s admiration that he recklessly agrees to a big score cooked up by his less-talented partner. Like Spielberg, Scott is remarkable technician, and he directs with a cool syncopation that matches the set design’s chilly blues and streamlined modernism—a look that echoes Roy’s emotional sterility. The retro ambience is reinforced sonically by Roy’s taste in 1950s LPs, which he plays on a Technics turntable. Against this laid-back background, the messy vivacity of Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and Lohman (White Oleander) acts like a tonic (both actors make good on their acclaimed leading-role debuts).

As the trio’s nervy scheme unfolds, so does Roy’s unhappy past, and the film almost imperceptibly incorporates the source of his neurosis into his newfound optimism. Scott’s multilevel dexterity pays off with a bang-whiz twist that beats the pants off of the tidy ending of Catch Me If You Can. From its snazzy scams to its reflective finish, Matchstick Men is a pleasure to be taken in by.

—Ann Morrow

The Good, the Bad and the Handsome

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Directed by Robert Rodriguez

It’s no secret that filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has a thing for the old-time Saturday matinee, so the title of his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which conjures up Sergio Leone and magnificent vistas of parched earth, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale (not necessarily in that order), should come as no surprise. The final installment in his El Mariachi trilogy, Mexico is decidedly uneven and falls short of telling a coherent story, and its bullets-to-body-count ratio is extreme even by Hollywood standards.

And yet . . . I loved this movie.

This time around, El (Antonio Banderas) spends a lot of time brooding over his all-too-brief wedded bliss, seen in flashback, to Carolina (Salma Hayek). Her death, at the hands of the evil General (Gerardo Vigil), haunts him to the point that when cornered by sleazy CIA op Sands (Johnny Depp) into a dangerous assignment—the assassination of Mexico’s beloved president (Pedro Armendariz Jr.)—he resignedly accepts. The tagline for this movie could well have been “This time, it’s for revenge,” since Mariachi’s partners-in-crime, played by the appealing Enrique Iglesias and Marco Leonardi, keep asking what the score is. Rodriguez is too smart, however, to boil down the movie into such mindless slogans. Thrown into the mix are druglord Barillo (Willem Dafoe), chihuahua-carrying American expat Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke), a sexy cop (Eva Mendes), a secret-selling bartender (Cheech Marin) and a retired FBI agent (Rubén Blades) with a partner to avenge.

Even if the narrative sometimes feels unanchored, Rodriguez is a visual storytelling genius who knows that with the right clues, we understand what’s happening on an elemental level. The exact particulars of the plot of Mexico may be hazy at times: Is Sands on the up and up? Whom exactly is Mariachi supposed to kill, and why? And what is Barillo’s connection to the general? Nevertheless, the film manages to sweep viewers up in the ride. Despite Rodriguez’s failure to better delineate various plot points, he mesmerizes with his sheer energy, enthusiasm for the genre and, not unimportantly, his ability to master the Sony 24-fps digital Hi-Def camera that he uses to astonishing effect. Who would have thought that a digital camera could capture Mexico’s vibrant greens, reds and yellows and lend such a pulsating, sense of place to the story?

Banderas is in top form; no director but Rodriguez seems to know how to get this guy to let it all hang out to such dazzlingly fun and sexy effect. Rourke’s sly turn almost made me weepy, remembering the promise of, say, Diner, and Blades gets a lot of mileage out of his reluctant, past-prime fed. However, the movie belongs as much to Depp as to Rodriguez. For the second time this year, Depp turns what might have been just an OK movie into something far, far more entertaining. His rogue agent is a lesson in uncool turned cool, and, as always, he has made a character you just can’t take your eyes off. His off-the-script riffs (a Marlon Brando impersonation?) are surreal, but they contribute to the overpercolating fun that is Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

—Laura Leon

Bloody Awful

Cabin Fever
Directed by Eli Roth

As did the pedestrian 28 Days Later, this film generated considerable buzz before its opening. Even Peter Jackson, whose Dead/Alive was one of the high points in contemporary horror, was conscripted into giving Cabin Fever an enthusiastic quote. If blood splattering across the screen as if assisted with a buzz saw is the chief qualifier these days for a film’s ability to menace, then it is the horror genre that is chiefly under assault, not the disposable characters of this new attempt at rural terror.

Earlier this year, I gave a passable review to a modest little film titled Wrong Turn in which a group of young people is stalked by inbred hillbillies. In comparison to this cretinous mess, that film (soon due out on video) seems like an understated minor masterwork in the vein of superior films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has just been remade, and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, which is getting a rerelease. Like these films, Cabin Fever relies on the city slickers-terrorized-by-country-folk syndrome and also throws in some malevolent hillbillies, but it is chiefly concerned with the newly revitalized fears of our post-anthrax-concerned society.

The subversive message may be that there is a deadly threat lying, Ebola-like, in wait out in the great American wilderness (one thinks of the Unabomber). But this film fails to exploit that potent notion with any effectiveness.

Instead it contents itself to knock off its victims one by one as they succumb to some unknown virus or bacteria that causes them to develop lesions, boils and generally gruesome sores as they bleed out from various orifices. The gore level is quite high, but rather than instill fear, the film only induces a vague sense of nausea and, like the other recent rural horror show, House of 1000 Corpses, the desire for a hot bath. Although, given one effectively grisly scene in Cabin Fever, a shower might seem more refreshing.

The disease makes its first appearance in the carcass of a hunter’s dog, and it then (in the tradition of The Blob) infects the hunter, who appears at the door of a cabin being rented by a group of five young people who are ill-equipped to survive in these grimmer-than-Grimm woods. The fear of being infected is fairly well portrayed until all sense is jettisoned and the actors begin to resemble characters in a juvenile, cliché-ridden horror film. To ensure that they can’t escape their woodland retreat, they stupidly attack their truck with a rifle and a bat, an act that also guarantees we won’t identify with them. Right down to a climax ripped off from The Night of the Living Dead, the characters merely exist for their capacity to vomit, bleed and rot.

What doesn’t seem recycled from other films is the comedy, particularly two moments set at a general store. One comes out of left field with the speed of the tracking camera in Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead films, arguably the scariest of cabin-in-the-woods movies. The other is a linguistic misconception that seems an absurdist touch and that makes the denouement more fun than anything else in the film. As is usually the case, however, (Dead/Alive and The Evil Dead being the rare exceptions) the cool humor is not well integrated with the horror. For all its feverishness, it remains a very lukewarm experience that merely leaves one stir-crazy for thriller that is at least cabin class.

—Ralph Hammann

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