When I was in college, my roommate and I used to watch “Late Night with David Letterman” every day. Back then, Letterman wasn’t quite the household name is now, and his guests were not always superstars. In fact, he made a habit of finding interesting, but somewhat obscure guests. I remember seeing frequent appearances from the likes of the Amazing Kreskin, comedian/podiatrist Brother Theodore, and comic book writer Harvey Pekar. There was something about Pekar in particular that was really interesting; he seemed so perpetually cranky that one had to wonder why he ever bothered to go on the show. I really hadn’t heard a whole lot about the man since then, but now he’s the surprising subject of a brilliant new film called American Splendor.
Paul Giamatti plays Pekar, an Ohio file clerk whose glass always seems to be half-empty. No, actually it seems to be completely empty. The movie begins in the 1970’s when Pekar’s second wife is leaving him and his job is stressing him out. Good fortune falls upon him one day when he meets an aspiring artist named Robert Crumb. They strike up a friendship, and when Crumb goes on to become an underground comic-art legend, Pekar is inspired to write a comic book of his own. The subject will be his own life, and the title will be “American Splendor.” He shows his manuscript to Crumb, who is impressed and offers to illustrate it.
Before long, “American Splendor” becomes a cult hit of its own. Pekar’s co-workers are begging to be included in the homespun tales of depression and self-loathing. The moderate success of the book doesn’t cheer Pekar up, however; he makes so little money from it that he can’t do anything to actually improve his life. He’s stuck in the same dead-end job and the same filthy house. His luck changes somewhat when one of his readers – a comic store owner named Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) – makes contact. A written correspondence leads to a personal visit, which in turn leads to a quickie marriage. Joyce does a lot to balance Harvey out: she’s a little neater, a little more ambitious, a little more optimistic. On the surface, you wouldn’t think they’d work together, but it seems like their pairing creates a weird kind of harmony.
By now, it’s the late 80’s. Pekar gets some national exposure as a frequent guest on Letterman. The appearances (which he hates) bring extra money, although it is still not enough to change his standard of living. Eventually the inherent crankiness takes over and Pekar makes some comments that get him banned from the talk show. Then he develops cancer which, to such a pessimist, seems like a death sentence. Despondent and refusing to go on, Pekar turns to his wife for support. She encourages him to do what he’s always done: write about his own experiences. With her help, Pekar begins work on his most personal project, a book called “Our Cancer Year” that details his entire course of treatment. The work is raw, tortured, and passionate. By the time his cancer is in remission, the book has garnered numerous awards.
American Splendor is one of the best cinematic depictions of an artist and his work that I ever recall seeing. The movie suggests that writing “Our Cancer Year” probably played a big part in saving Pekar’s life. It gave him a reason to go on that he never would have found within himself. By externalizing his fight against cancer – making it part of his inspiration rather than just succumbing to it – he was able to detach himself from his own negativity. This is clearly a guy who would otherwise have simply wallowed in his own misery. The movie does a stunning job of showing how the monotony of Harvey Pekar’s life transferred itself onto his creative work, which later proved to be his saving grace. Someone once said that it is hard to make a movie about artists because inspiration is such an internal thing. American Splendor finds a way to dramatize the need Pekar had to create something.
The other really magnificent achievement of the film is the great sense of humanity it has. Like Harvey, the other characters in this movie are not really happy people. They don’t live in the nicest houses, or work the greatest jobs, or have the most active social lives. Harvey’s geeky coworker Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) lives with his grandmother and rejoices when he sees the film Revenge of the Nerds because it “empowers” him. Joyce battles depression at the same time that she seeks to do something positive in the world, like have a child or perform charity work. And Harvey, of course, has tons of problems, complaints, and maladies. Despite dealing with such unhappy people, American Splendor doesn’t condescend to the characters, nor does it come off as a downer. On the contrary, the movie celebrates these people who live on the fringes. It glorifies the fact that anyone, no matter how dire his or her lot in life, can do something worthwhile, something that touches other people. I was awed at the way the film made me care so deeply about each one of the characters and their real-life counterparts.
(Incidentally, MTV viewers may remember the real Toby Radloff, a self-proclaimed “genuine nerd” who was a field reporter for the network back in the 80’s. At the time, I assumed he was a stand-up comedian doing a nerd routine, and I am somewhat shocked to learn that he was not acting.)
Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis deserve much credit for making Harvey Pekar and Joyce such compelling characters to watch. Davis, a staple of independent movies, is nearly unrecognizable in this role. She plays Joyce as a woman of amazing clarity. When her husband faces a serious illness, it is she who remains strong and devises a plan. She also loves Harvey despite the things that would outwardly make him unlikable: the negativity, the grouchiness, the temper. And that brings us to Paul Giamatti, who gives hands-down the best performance I’ve seen all year. Just give him the Oscar now. Giamatti has been delivering rock-solid supporting performances for a long time, but now he has the kind of role actors dream of. Utterly disappearing into the part, Giamatti doesn’t just play Harvey Pekar, he embodies him. The performance is so realistic, so 3-dimensional, that you forget you are watching an actor. Giamatti develops a vocal style and physical mannerisms that convey all the conflict Pekar carries inside him, yet it never seems self-conscious or artificial. The actor achieves these things in a way that feels very natural. This is truly an astonishing piece of work.
Writer/directors Robert Pulcini and Sherry Springer Berman have created a visual style for the film that makes the performances meld perfectly with the sense of humanity and the theme of artistic inspiration. They occasionally cut to brief interview segments with the real-life people bring portrayed; at times, Giamatti (in character) stands behind the real Pekar as he’s being asked questions. At other points, the directors give the movie a comic book feel by illustrating the scenes in the style of the book, or drawing over top of the filmed image. There are even scenes in which an animated Pekar appears onscreen to serve as the conscience of Giamatti’s Pekar. This whole approach to the story brilliantly conveys how Pekar’s life and art are indistinguishable. It looks like a copy of the comic come to life.
One of the humorous things about the “American Splendor” comics is that Pekar looks different from issue to issue, depending on who’s drawing him. In many ways, that’s kind of appropriate because as a person, Pekar has many sides. He’s a crank, a creator, a complainer, a dreamer, a self-loather, and a self-celebrator all in one. That’s what makes his work so notable; it encompasses all different aspects of the man himself. Some say that life imitates art; others say that art imitates life. For Harvey Pekar, art and life are one and the same.
( out of four)
American Splendor is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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