American Splendor
directed by Shari Springer Berman
& Robert Pulcini
(Fine Line, 2003)

When we first spot Harvey Pekar walking down the street all slumped over -- shoulders hanging, sour countenance -- we may think, "Who'd wanna spend time with this guy?" I would -- and I bet if you see American Splendor you'll say the same thing, too.

Part documentary, part re-enactment, with a little animation thrown in for good measure, American Splendor uses real life, graphic novels and a realistic portrayal of an irascible guy in some startling ways.

And what you get, thanks to screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, actor Paul Giamatti and Pekar himself, is a film about a guy who doesn't fit in with the mainstream, who's miserable, who's facing some incredible health odds -- and whose life, despite what he may want you to think, is a fascinating (I'd say uplifting, except Pekar would absolutely hate the thought) slice of reality.

Pekar, you see, is a graphic novelist whose work isn't about superheroes or fantasy. It's about reality, just an average guy who sees no need to put on a happy face just because it'll make people around him more comfortable. No, he spends his days in a dead-end job as a file clerk, his spare time with friends who line up White Castle burgers on their dashboards and wax poetic about the brilliance of Revenge of the Nerds.

They are nerds, as the outside world would brand them -- but what the outside world often misses, in its rush to label successes, are the offbeat geniuses. Comic book store clerk Joyce Brabner (a fantastic Hope Davis, recently seen in About Schmidt) doesn't miss Pekar's genius for making observational "comics" about the grind of daily life, and a correspondence quickly turns to a visit by Joyce and a proposal of marriage on their first date.

They're a great match. Joyce has a tendency toward diagnosing mental maladies in the people she meets and an exhaustive list of her own self-diagnosed health issues. "Wow," says Harvey at one point, "you're a sick woman."

"Not yet," Joyce reponds, "but I plan to be."

Harvey's career takes off with a series of appearances on David Letterman's show that must set the record for not flattering your host -- and it's a relationship that goes horribly, hilariously awry on national television. And his battle and eventual triumph over cancer, recorded in a series of graphic novels, sets another sort of high standard in his art.

Harvey -- both Giamatti's interpretation of him and the real thing -- is a cantankerous genius, and the weaving of real Harvey, Giamatti's Harvey, his real-life family and friends, actors and drawn characters, with archival footage from his Letterman shows, weaves reality and fantasy in a way that should be confusing, but isn't. It's inspired. The combination of media to create the portrait of a man who takes real life and puts it on paper is a great example of what film can be with some creativity behind it.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 8 May 2004

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