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American Splendor

Release date: Aug. 15
Distributor: Fine Line

Standing out among specialty releases this year was Fine Line’s groundbreaking adaptation “American Splendor,” which fused fictional filmmaking, documentary and even comic strip inserts to paint a glumly funny and involving look at underground comics writer Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti.

Discerning Academy voters could have a field day honoring this sweet-and-sour slice of anti-hero life from docu filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman if larger, more ostentatious prestige pics prove to be a letdown.

A Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, “Splendor” is one of the few films to follow through from being highly touted at the Park City festival to being widely praised upon release.

Other fest prizes included critics’ prizes in Cannes and Deauville, and the New Director’s Award at Edinburgh. Film’s approximately $6 million domestic take constituted a solid showing among specialty releases this fall.

Among the film’s numerous champions, The Washington Post called the film a “superbly conceived anti-biopic” and called Giamatti’s performance “a mixture of charm and gritty realism and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce Brabner “unforgettable” and “a quiet but powerful force.” Variety called “Splendor” a “sad, tender, wise and beautiful film” that represents “a bold deconstruction of the fatigued biopic form.”

“Splendor’s” Oscar chances will likely stem from support for its lead thesps. Giamatti, long a critical favorite, took on the difficult task of playing the Cleveland Veterans hospital clerk and alt-comic legend in a movie that juxtaposes him with scenes of the real Harvey Pekar. Giamatti brings ragged dignity to the characterization, and Davis, almost unrecognizable in an awkward wig and owlish glasses, continues to defy her indie-loving fans with a performance that is painfully funny and surprisingly touching.

Also of note is Judah Friedlander as Pekar’s nerdy filing clerk chum Toby Radloff, who manages to steal every scene he’s in.

The lovably drab neurotics on display could remind Academy members of the days when Woody Allen’s artfully witty hand-wringing regularly got his pics nominated.

Tech credits are sharp on the effects side for such a low-budget, low-key film, but a visual effects nod is unlikely. If “Splendor’s” peculiar charms help worm the movie’s way into some larger categories, look for Pulcini’s deft editing — turning assorted vignettes in Pekar’s life into a cohesive film — to be recognized as well.

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