Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 10, 2003
American Splendor
Starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s comic book series. Rated R.
Cleveland Blues

Harvey Pekar’s life (though not his vision) hits the screen in American Splendor.


Harvey Pekar has a talent for misery. Maybe you would, too, if you spent 35 years as a file clerk in a VA hospital in Cleveland. Completely disengaged from mainstream American culture, Pekar took his anomie, his dead-end job, and his widely dissed hometown, and turned it all into an acclaimed comic book series called American Splendor. He’d no doubt be chagrined if you pointed out that his life story fit the formula of a Hollywood screenplay better than it fit his comics. After all, this self-described loser not only attained professional success and won a devoted and relatively large readership, but he also found a stable, loving marriage and a surrogate daughter to raise, and overcame a battle with cancer. Can’t you just see that movie as a late-season weeper with an Oscar-begging part for some big star like Jack Nicholson? (Actually, Dustin Hoffman would be the A-list Hollywood star to play Pekar, but the story is more to Nicholson’s taste in material.)

Fortunately, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini haven’t made that movie in adapting American Splendor. Instead, they’ve treated his life in a much more interesting way. Berman and Pulcini cut their teeth as documentarians, making films together about a new-style funeral home director (The Young and the Dead) and the demise of a legendary Hollywood restaurant (Off the Menu: The Last Days at Chasen’s). These films were received respectfully, but reviewers often criticized Berman and Pulcini for sentimentality and for lacking a creative approach to their material as opposed to, say, Errol Morris. This film takes them into the realm of docudrama, juxtaposing interviews with the real Pekar and his friends and dramatized scenes from Pekar’s life, with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar. (When we first see Giamatti as Pekar, the real Pekar says in voice-over, “There’s our man, or at least the guy who’s playing me. He don’t look nothin’ like me.”)

Throwing fictionalized biography into the mix liberates the filmmakers from having to be strict documentarians, and the resulting hybrid is more entertaining than a straightforward treatment of Pekar’s life would have been. The documentary reality, the fictional reality, the comic series, and a stage play about Pekar all coexist and comment on one another. In one scene, Giamatti as Pekar talks with Judah Friedlander as Pekar’s borderline autistic friend Toby Radloff, and then the two actors step out of character, remove their costumes, and sit in chairs off to the side to watch their real-life counterparts continue their conversation.

Berman and Pulcini’s shell game is beguiling and assured, but it doesn’t capture what made Pekar connect with his readers. The movie short-shrifts his politics, to the point that, when we see Pekar blow up during an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, it plays like a crank’s self-destructive fit rather than a thoughtful, principled stand. The film’s Pekar is a well-read misfit who name-checks Elinor Hoyt Wylie, and he’s made to appeal to moviegoers who see themselves the same way. (This includes film critics, who either actually are smarter than most other people or delude themselves into thinking that they are.) The movie invites us to go along with young Harvey’s epigraphic line from the movie’s beginning: “Why does everybody have to be so stupid?”

The movie’s much better at depicting Pekar’s relationship with his third and current wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis, decked out in a black stringy wig, huge glasses, overalls, and high-top sneakers). The romance between these equally eccentric and socially maladjusted people is highly amusing stuff — the very nightmarishness of their first date only confirms that they’re right for each other, and the two actors maintain a sense of companionable alienation even when the marriage frays.

Particularly fine is Giamatti, a character actor who has made a career out of playing guys who deal with exhaustion and stress by wisecracking and whose wide, encircled eyes look as if they were drawn by Edward Gorey. Called on to carry a movie for the first time, he does terrific work. He curls his lip and bares his teeth when he gets his big break from R. Crumb (James Urbaniak), who offers to illustrate Pekar’s comics. It’s the reaction of a man who wants to smile but has forgotten how. Later on, after Pekar is diagnosed with cancer, he’s powerfully affecting when he sits on his doorstep with tears streaming down his face, telling Joyce, “I don’t know how to be positive! I can’t do that!”

Though it’s occasionally too facile, American Splendor is recommendable for Giamatti’s performance and its visual and verbal wit. The final shot, of the real-life Pekar having a birthday celebration with his friends, closes this oddly inspiring story of a man who found love and happiness despite himself.

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