The sweet-and-sour independent movie "American Splendor" traces the tough, low-rent times of one Harvey Pekar — file clerk, jazz aficionado, curmudgeon supreme, friend of comic book legend Robert Crumb and nemesis of late-night host David Letterman. For the past three decades, the Cleveland native and various illustrators have collaborated on a mordantly amusing comic, also known as "American Splendor," that details his encounters with feckless women, boring jobs, illness and his own anguish. Most comic books are about supermen battling evil; Pekar's are about a deeply ordinary man facing down a more familiar devil — the horror of everyday life.
Some legends are born; others are drawn. Now with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's biographical movie about Pekar, the writer's lumpen projection has taken on yet new shapes. There are a couple of animated Harveys, each representing a different illustrator's interpretation. There's the man himself plopped on a sound stage and talking about whether the movie's got him and his take on things right (he says yes and no).
Last, there's the fictional, live-action character played with lyrical desperation by Paul Giamatti. It's no surprise, of course, that only the real Pekar comes close to the comic's raw, spiky complexity, but Giamatti's performance is so good — and easier to stomach in long stretches than his pen-and-ink analogue — that it almost makes up for everything that's been lost in translation.
In the early 1970s, fired up by Crumb's success in underground comics and encroachments on the mainstream with characters like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, Pekar decided to try his hand at the genre. A one-time obsessive record collector — he once bought a pair of 50-cent used shoes so he could spend all his money on platters — stuck in dead-end jobs that didn't tap his creativity, he was looking for a means of personal expression. He couldn't actually draw beyond the most rudimentary stick figure, but it didn't matter. His stories tickled his friend, who brought Pekar to poignantly sweaty plebeian life with his undulating lines and genius for caricature. Crumb's patronage helped turn Pekar into a small cult and in the years since other artists have put his Everyman into figurative form.
Giamatti looks nothing like Pekar either in person or in his various cartoon guises, but in a warmly sympathetic performance he brings the character to grubby, soulful life. Using his jumpy eyebrows as accent marks, the actor succeeds in conveying Pekar's congenital unhappiness, but because the script greatly tones Harvey down, Giamatti plays the character more sweet than sour, almost puckish. Pekar can be shockingly rude in the comic and certainly before he met his current wife, Joyce (Hope Davis in the film), he came across as a man profoundly in touch with his misery. Using his rounded face and lopsided mouth — when he tries to smile, his lips seem to flop over, as if they'd forgotten how — Giamatti fashions a gentler side of Harvey, imbuing him with tenderness that Pekar himself hasn't often allowed.
The disparity of Pekar's looks, moods and temperaments in the comic inspires one of the funniest bits in the movie, when Joyce first meets Harvey. A comic book store owner, she originally wrote to Pekar looking to buy a sold-out issue. One thing led to another and eventually they arranged to hook up. She had never seen a photograph of Pekar and had no idea what to expect: Depending on who's drawing him, Pekar looks hapless, tortured, enraged, exasperated, somewhat presentable or ferociously ugly. He's also often drawn sweating bullets and wearing a plush coat of body hair; in earlier years, he was sometimes seen having lonely sex (occasionally with himself) and sometimes violently cursing the women who'd rejected him.
Standing in the train terminal, Joyce anxiously scans the crowd and sees cartoon Harveys lying in wait, alternately suave (well, almost) and swarthy. Then the live-action Harvey shuffles up, blurts out he's had a vasectomy, and before you can say, "Get these people some anti-depressants," they're hitched.
Berman and Pulcini, the husband-and wife team who directed and co-wrote the film, have two feature documentaries to their credit, one about the closing of the restaurant Chasen's, the other about the multimedia cemetery Forever Hollywood. In "American Splendor," they mix a gently fictionalized story with talking-head interviews, primarily with the real Pekar and some of the people who appear in his comics. Along with Giamatti, the interviews are the best part of the movie, but they're gummed up by the filmmakers' pseudo-Brechtian diddling. In one scene, Giamatti walks out of the shot, sits next to the actor playing Harvey's friend, Toby (a wonderful Judah Friedlander), and proceeds to watch the real Harvey talk to the real Toby. By now breaking the fourth wall is pretty tired stuff, especially when it comes off as just a stylistic tic.
The filmmakers' prankish visual style works far better when it serves the comic's deeper truths, like the scene when Joyce sees all the cartoon Harveys at the train station. "American Splendor" is about a cheap, ill-tempered schlub, but it's also about how we cling to our human selves, our individuality, even as the world tries to smash us to pieces. As Pekar muses in one of the comics, "Who is Harvey Pekar?" The question lies at the heart and troubled soul of the comic, but it's easy to imagine that the filmmakers, who probably felt they were already out on a limb with such a down-and-out antihero, didn't want to alienate the audience by letting Harvey's multiple personalities rip. So instead of the fractured Harvey, they give us a grumpy but fundamentally decent guy with a couple of cartoon personalities and a comically harridan wife.
An actress of delicacy and inward quiet, Davis usually brightens every movie she's in, and while she's appealing here she has a rough time with Joyce. Who wouldn't? In the film, the real Joyce addresses whether she's gotten a fair shake in her husband's comics. She very sensibly says he tends to look at life more darkly than she does, which may account for her less-than-flattering comic book persona. With a long, black wig that looks like it's been sitting in Cher's garage for 30 years and her eyes obscured by oversized glasses, Davis is almost swamped by the character's accouterments. She has some wonderful bits — a scene in which she diagnoses Harvey's friends is a minor comic classic — but because the character's been plucked straight from the comic, too often Davis just plays Joyce's familiar nag role.
Biographies of living people are tricky if for no other reason than a biographer can sometimes feel protective of his or her subject. Berman and Pulcini obviously adore Pekar, but by not getting out of his head more often and taking him on his own harsh terms, they blow the chance to dig as deep as the source. "American Splendor" is vastly superior to a slick studio con job like "A Beautiful Mind," but Berman and Pulcini are just as careful about their guy not looking bad. Pekar can be brutal, damning people as jerks and worse, but he's always honest about his nature. The film's tag-line is "ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," but a truer one comes at the end of a comic when, after an especially wretched day, Pekar brightens and says: "Hey, I feel better now. I only feel normally lousy."
If in Berman and Pulcini's sentimentalized portrait, Pekar the grouch often comes across more like Pekar the tortured artist, well, that's the movies for ya. Selling a character like this to the world can be risky business, as Letterman found out in the late 1980s when he discovered Pekar wasn't just another wacky chair-warmer. By that point, Pekar was happily married (kind of), had friends and work he could count on, and had reached a level of fame (if not financial security). Worse times loomed, but his episodic existence of lows and really, really low lows had shaped up into the sort of heroic arc that the movies love. For years, Harvey Pekar soothed his existential pain by making himself the hero of his own story. If anyone is overdue for celebrity and a real paycheck it's this guy.
MPAA rating: R, for language.
Times guidelines: Adult language, copious body hair, flab.
Paul Giamatti ... Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar ... Himself
Hope Davis ... Joyce Brabner
James Urbaniak ... Robert Crumb
Judah Friedlander ... Toby Radloff
HBO Films in association with Fine Line Features presents a Good Machine production, released by Fine Line Features. Writers/directors Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini. Based on the comic book by Harvey Pekar. Producer Ted Hope. Director of photography Terry Stacey. Production designer Thérèse DePrez. Editor Robert Pulcini. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson. Composer Mark Suozzo. Music supervisor Linda Cohen. Casting Ann Goulder. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
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