American Splendor, moving and very amusing, is a Summer/fall treat for discriminating, adventurous audiences, those willing to chance a movie celebrating a slovenly dressed, balding, middle-aged, middle-American they probably have never heard of, a guy with a slouch and a paunch, self-pitying and chronically depressed. He's Harvey Pekar, a real-life underground comic-book artist, who, since the mid-70s, has been chronicling his lowly, self-loathing existence in his superb autobiographical comic, also called American Splendor.
Add to Melville and Kafka the name of yet another meritorious literary personage who has suffered his adult life imprisoned in a dead-end office job. Until his recent retirement, Pekar was a file clerk forever in a Cleveland, Ohio, VA hospital. He'd have preferred not to work there, but how to pay the bills? There's little dough to be had outside the hospital, where Pekar peddled used jazz albums for a dollar a pop, penned freelance music reviews, and put out issues of American Splendor.
Chekhov's three sisters never got to Moscow, but Pekar journeyed to New York in the '80s for several stints on the David Letterman Show. There, Letterman made jest of him as some provincial bloke. Pekar retreated to Cleveland, and to his no-brainer employ, and to peddling his "cult" comics to the few hip enough to know how smart and wonderful they were.
With American Splendor, the dandy movie which won Best Feature Film at Sundance, the anonymity is definitely over. Pekar, as interpreted with great feeling by actor Paul Giamatti, is portrayed as he should be, as an oddly winning anti-superhero, one with, undeniably, even more ticks and neuroses than the Hulk.
Ted Hope, an indie film producer who was a zealous fan of Pekar's comics, hired on a talented team to write a screenplay and direct: Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, New York-based marrieds who had made funny, affectionate feature documentaries about off-beat Americana: Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's (1998), chronicling the demise of Hollywood's legendary restaurant, and The Young and the Dead (2000), about an idealistic LA cemetery where the great movie people are solemnly buried.
How to structure a Pekar bio? Pulcini and Berman chose an engaging, mildly experimental path to make Pekar's life shimmer on screen. Mostly they tell the story straight, using terrific professional actors. But sometimes the movie becomes an animation, mimicking Pekar's cartoons. And sometimes-this is most effective-the real-life Harvey Pekar, and Pekar's real-life family and associates, come before the camera to be informally interviewed (Berman is the off-frame questioner), or just be filmed being themselves, or be filmed chatting while the actors playing them sit observing in the background.
But these "real" scenes are shot in a stylized, anti-realist way, on a stark-white, Felliniesque sound stage with symbolic objects placed strategically about. It's tempting to call what's done as "Pirandellian," but that term is far too pretentious for what is accomplished here in such a relaxed manner.
The film of American Splendor is a compression of Pekar's oft-miserable life and times as filtered through more than twenty-five years of American Splendor comic books. The story begins at a very Woody Allenish moment, in the 1960s. Pekar's second wife, disgusted by their messy, dirty hovel of an apartment, much overrun by Pekar's books and LPs, walks out on him. At this point, Pekar's art is only in his head. The fact is: he can't draw! But a fortuitous thing occurs: at a yard sale, he meets a fellow geek, who has just arrived in Cleveland to illustrate for a greeting card company. Yes, it's Bob Crumb, who would move swiftly to San Francisco and become R.Crumb, the Aeschylus of underground comics.
Flash ahead to the 70s. Crumb (played perfectly by a droll, understated James Urbaniak) passes through Cleveland, has lunch with Pekar. Crumb looks at some crude attempts at cartoons by his Cleveland-based pal, but is impressed by the sophisticated text. A buoyant moment: "Can I take them home and illustrate them?" Crumb asks. A fabulous collaboration is born, with Pekar supplying the dialogue and stories and Crumb doing the drawings. And that's the way American Splendor has been done ever since, but with changing illustrators. Always, Pekar has been the Lorenz Hart, the Ira Gershwin.
Publishing a comic book wasn't enough. For Pekar, love was missing. The most poignant sections of American Splendor, the movie, are about Pekar's deep loneliness, his yearning for connection with a kindred-spirit mate. But how many cool, adult women want to become involved with an uncouth guy with an uncool day job who does comic books? Maybe only one, but Pekar locates his soulmate: Joyce Brabner, a lady geek who worked in a comic-book store in Wilmington, Delaware, and who travels to Cleveland to hook up with Harvey. He tells her he's had a vasectomy, she reveals a stomach that makes you regurgitate your food. It's a hilariously inept first date, and by the end of the night, they are engaged.
In American Splendor, Joyce is played to the hilt by blonde Hope Davis with owl glasses under a disheveled black wig, and with uncomely bangs. With Joyce and Harvey, as portrayed by Davis and Giamatti, old-time screwball comedy comes brilliantly alive. They're an undeniable love match who also squabble all the time. She's irritated by his gloominess and pessimism. He's horrified to discover that his new wife shuns work, preferring to sleep in, semi-depressed, rather than find a job.
Never mind, They've been together for two decades, and the real-life Joyce Brabner also makes an interview appearance in American Splendor. She's as funny and kooky as her eccentric husband. And there's a third person who also is seen as he really is and as acted: Toby Radloff, Pekar's almost-autistic friend from work, a self-described, unapologetic "nerd." Judah Friedlander, the actor who plays Radloff, has his person down exactly, including the deliciously monotone innotation.
What's amiss with American Splendor? I could have used more of Mr. Boats, my favorite character from Pekar's comic, an African-American co-worker with an archaic, different-drummer vantage on life. And the ending of the film, a hug-a-thon at Pekar's retirement party, is a bit too calculatedly feel-good. I'm certain that Pekar, refreshingly as grouchy and skeptical as ever, would agree.
(September, 2003 WBUR Radio)