Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Media Watch: From comic books to Nicholas Cage: ‘American Splendor,’ ‘Matchstick Men’
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 2, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
I know nothing about comic books. Yet, the new quirky film about comic book writer Harvey Pekar, titled American Splendor, is a thoughtful story of ordinary people living day by day.
The film begins slowly using several different types of film making. We have still photos of comic book cartoons. Harvey Pekar is portrayed by the fine actor Paul Giamatti. The real Harvey Pekar appears in documentary form to add meaning to the story. It is innovative story telling at its cinematic best. Go with the slow-moving story at the beginning and find yourself in a rich tapestry of the human condition that keeps getting better as the movie progresses. There is plenty of humor. Lots to laugh about in a film that focuses on a man who at first is hard to identify with. Yes, in the end Harvey Pekar ends up being “Everyman.”
From the beginning of the story in 1950 we learn that Harvey doesn’t fit in with traditional Halloween costumed Trick-or-Treaters. We jump ahead to 1975 and find Harvey in Cleveland struggling with the loss of his voice. He is very unhappy with his filing position at the VA Hospital. We slowly meet the people of Harvey’s life at work and learn of his friendship with the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak).
Harvey’s life is sad and lonely. By his negative attitude, time and time again he makes his life even worse.
He eventually writes about his life in cartoon style. Robert Crumb is impressed and offers to illustrate his stories. Thus Harvey becomes well known in underground cartoon circles telling unabashed truthful stories about his life and his friends.
Through his American Splendor stories he meets his third wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). She brings a new dimension to his life. The story of their meeting and eventual marriage is unique and touching.
Harvey’s story is magnified by his friend at work, who seems to enjoy being classified as a nerd. Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) has quite a debate with Harvey when the movie Revenge of the Nerds comes out.
Harvey is invited numerous times on to the old NBC David Letterman Show. Letterman uses Harvey as a foil for humor. Eventually Harvey rebels. This part of the film is a combination of acting the story out and old television tapes from the 1980s.
A very poignant part of the story is Harvey’s bout with cancer. With Joyce’s help and the illustrations of artist friends Harvey’s journey is told in an autobiographical book titled Our Cancer Year.
Paul Giamatti is very good as Harvey Pekar. Hope Davis as his wife is wonderful with all her surprising characteristics. She is quite a character, but always lovable. Judah Friendlander as Toby the nerd is memorable. He has a certain wise simplicity about himself.
Special kudos to Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They have made a film that truly breaks out of the normal box. At the same time they tell a story of an ordinary man and his friends who, in spite of their sometimes rather unusual characteristics, touch the humanity of those viewing the film. American Splendor is well worth seeing.
American Splendor is rated R for foul language, which I missed hearing. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates American Splendor A-III – adults.
Ridley Scott, well known for such larger-than-life productions as Gladiator and Hannibal, has recently directed the new caper film Matchstick Men.
Matchstick Men is fast-moving, entertaining and well-acted. Some have argued that it is a beautiful confection that is easily forgotten. I’m not so sure. I have thought about the film for days after having seen it. Yes, there is a trick or two in the film that changes your understanding of the characters and the story. But even when you clearly see everything there is something memorable about the film.
The three principals – Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman – give outstanding performances as the three likable con artists who are given money by their victims.
The story begins as Roy (Cage) and his sidekick Frankie (Rockwell) go to the home of a conned wife pretending to be from the Federal Trade Commission. Then the real con takes place, with the husband urging our dynamic duo on to the couple’s bank account.
Roy is very obsessive-compulsive. Before going through a door he opens it three times and counts. He is particularly concerned about dirt on his carpet. Except for his almost constant smoking his home is sparkling clean everywhere.
Frankie connects Roy to a therapist for help with his mental health. As part of the therapy, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) moves Roy in the direction of finding out if he might have a teenage child by his first marriage. Roy is afraid of contacting his former wife so he asks Dr. Klein to make contact. Eventually Roy meets his daughter Angela (Lohman) at a public park.
A teenager coming in Roy’s rather antiseptic life is a dramatic change for Roy. He has great trouble adjusting to her visits. His attempts at a perfectly controlled world are blown out of the water. And slowly he begins to enjoy being a father who cares about the long-lost daughter.
Angela begs Roy to teach her how to con people. He does eventually do it once and forces her to give the money back to a woman in a laundromat.
Roy against his better judgment allows Angela to play a part in a major con at the Los Angeles Airport. At this point events swing out of control. The viewer just needs to let go and ride the roller coaster of a story to its conclusion. The conclusion has some good elements to talk about. Some may feel it works. Others will not.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this film, a word of warning is needed. If smoking drives you through the roof, be warned this film has more smoking in it than one would think possible.
Nicolas Cage is extraordinary playing a quirky person with serious mental health issues.
Ridley Scott directs Matchstick Men with clever finesse. In the long con I was pulling like mad for the crooks to be successful. Scott and writers Nicolas Griffin and Ted Griffin force us to exam our own ethical standards. They do so in a humorous and more than slightly tricky way.
Matchstick Men can be seen as pure fun or with a thoughtful, humanistic edge. Either way it is worth seeing.
Matchstick Men is rated PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned) by the Motion Picture Association of America. There are some scenes of violence and some use of profanity.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Matchstick Men A-III – adults.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)