I have never read an issue of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” comic book, but the man’s reputation is impressive. Continuing the work of R. Crumb (his friend and collaborator), Pekar revolutionized the comic world, creating books without superheroes or talking animals, but instead with real people — himself, in particular — as the characters. His stories focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life, little frustrations like behind stuck behind old Jewish women in supermarket checkout lines. If “Seinfeld” had been set in Cleveland and if Jerry had been a little more misanthropic and a lot less cheerful, it would have been “American Splendor.”
The movie of that name is a witty, entertaining look at Pekar, with Paul Giamatti playing the man and the real man himself serving as narrator. The story sticks close to the facts of Pekar’s life — his dead-end job as a file clerk at the V.A. hospital, his marriage to fellow grouch and comic book aficionado Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), his success that brought fame without money — and even turns documentary, on occasion, with face-to-face interviews with the real Harvey, Joyce, and Harvey’s friend Toby. (It is stunning to see how well the respective actors each play their characters, by the way. In particular, there’s Judah Friedlander, whose performance as Toby seems too funny to be true — until we meet the real Toby and see he really DOES talk like that.)
One bit, over-stylized to look like a sterile white movie set, shows Giamatti and Friedlander looking on as Harvey and Toby talk, and Giamatti seems genuinely fascinated. What an exciting way to present a movie! Many biopics assume their subject’s importance is a given and do little to demonstrate it to the audience, in the process omitting elements that would be key in a fictional story (rising action, climax, etc.). “American Splendor” avoids this trap, giving us plot, character development and one giggly scene after another.
The film comes from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, documentarians making their first foray into reality-based fiction. They react to their liberation from the restraints of documentary-making with zeal and creativity. The comic book motif appears in their visual presentation, with all-caps handwritten titles indicating time and place and the action occasionally split up into panels. A cartoon version of Harvey appears occasionally, egging him on to comic-book glory.
The cast is near-perfect, from Hope Davis’ mousy, pessimistic Joyce to James Urbaniak as an out-there Robert Crumb.
Giamatti, always a reliably funny character actor but never before given such an important lead role, absolutely shines in his performance. He captures Harvey perfectly, his grumpy, disgusted facial expression, the way his eyebrows remain furrowed even when he smiles, the self-defensive, slumped-over posture when he walks down a city street. Harvey sounds like such a dour figure, and he’s certainly cynical, but Giamatti makes him as lovable as the real guy probably is. He may be a sourpuss, but in the film, we see why: he’s desperately lonely. We feel for the guy, because we understand where his bitterness comes from.
I have almost no interest whatsoever in comic books or in Harvey Pekar’s work (though I think I may check some of it out now that I’ve seen him in action), but “American Splendor” appealed to me anyway. It’s that kind of movie, about a fascinating character, told in a light, entertaining manner, full of wit and humanity. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why.
A- (1 hr., 44 min.; )