It sounds like it wouldn’t work: a film about a shlub who works as a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital by day and writes comic books about his pathetic life by night. He’s not terribly good-looking or fun, and he doesn’t try to be. But he’s a real guy. And he’s alive.
So not only is this a film about Harvey Pekar, with an actor playing him, but it’s also part-documentary, in which Pekar himself shows up and sometimes narrates. At one point, the real Pekar sits side-by-side on the set with Paul Giamatti, the actor playing him. So do Pekar’s nerdy, real-life co-worker, Toby, and the actor doing a flawless impression of him, Judah Friedlander.
Later still, Giamatti-as-Pekar sits in a theater, watching another actor (Donal Logue) portray Pekar in a play. And throughout, we see illustrated incarnations of Pekar, complete with thought bubbles, in comic-book panels come to life. And those vary, too, depending on who draws him. (Pekar never did the artwork himself. He barely can etch stick figures.)
Unlike “Adaptation” — about another neurotic, miserable writer — which seemed too pleased with itself for the inventiveness of its structure, “American Splendor” isn’t too self-aware and works because of its structure; it’s joyous with the possibility of experimentation. Pekar’s a complicated guy, so approaching him from a variety of angles paints an even more compelling picture.
And it works because of Giamatti, in his first lead role.
An intriguing character actor for so long, he’s perhaps best known for his role as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts.” Nothing about him is traditionally attractive, yet he’s the guy your eye naturally gravitates toward.
He’s usually the best thing in a bad movie — “Duets,” “Big Fat Liar” and the 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes” spring to mind — and he’s offered solid support in better movies, including “Saving Private Ryan” and “Man on the Moon.”
With “American Splendor,” he finally gets to be the best thing in a great movie — one of the year’s best.
A wonderful life?
Co-written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor” focuses on a far less glamorous subject than their 1997 documentary “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s.” This is Pekar’s Cleveland of the 1970s, which cinematographer Terry Stacey evokes with bleak greens and browns.
The film follows him through his early scribblings and his collaboration with Robert Crumb (played vividly by James Urbaniak). Pekar didn’t write about superheroes — he wrote about stuff everyone can relate to: dishes piling up in the sink, losing your hair, putting on weight.
In that way, his comic book series, which he called “American Splendor,” was a precursor to reality television. When Ozzy Osbourne complains about these things on MTV every week, it’s eccentric; when Pekar did it nearly 30 years ago, it was groundbreaking, resonant.
The comics brought him underground fame, followed by a series of appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” in the ’80s, back when Letterman also was groundbreaking, resonant.
In yet another layer, we see Giamatti-as-Pekar in the green room at NBC, waiting to go on air, then see video footage of the real Pekar verbally sparring with the talk show host.
The comics also brought him his wife, the bookish Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis, whose transformation makes her unrecognizable). Similarly neurotic and miserable, Brabner finds a soul mate in Pekar and unearths his sensitive side. (On their first date, he invites her home and tells her, “I was gonna clean up, but why should I give you any false notions?”)
A diagnosis of testicular cancer further exposes Pekar’s vulnerability beneath his cantankerous exterior, as does his taking in a young girl (Madylin Sweeten) with whom he and Brabner form a makeshift family.
It’s not exactly a wonderful life, but it’s more poignant than Pekar ever could have imagined — not that it stops him from grousing.