For a guy who worked as a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital for more than 30 years, Harvey Pekar has had a mighty far-reaching effect on exotically distant worlds of comic books, art, literature, theater, television, and movies. In the cult-favorite autobiographical comics he has been creating since the 1970s, Pekar, now in his mid-60s, is a self-described obsessive and paranoid ”reliable disappointment”; he’s a dyspeptic, pessimistic husband and guardian to a teenage girl, prone to grumbling, a working-man aesthete who loves jazz and hates dishwashing. But he’s also an original, ambitious thinker who invented a new form of literature. Over the years, his stories have been illustrated by stars of the underground comic-book movement, among them the influential Robert Crumb, and the storyteller himself found late-night notoriety in the 1980s as a frequent, if ambivalent, guest on David Letterman’s old NBC show. Over the years, too, his anti-tall tales have regularly intrigued movie people – and ultimately confounded their efforts at translation.
Until now. Pekar lives by the motto that ”ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”; he has always kept his eye on the small picture. It’s altogether right – but sure as hell a marvel – that American Splendor captures the philosophy so beautifully and conveys it with such splendorific (and innately American) inventiveness. Like the comic-book Pekar who changes contours depending on who draws him, this exhilarating and big-hearted cinematic version by the husband-and-wife writing and directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman shuffles drama, documentary interviews, archival footage, animation, and cartoons to re-create stories from their subject’s life.
Here’s Pekar momentously meeting his third wife, Joyce Brabner, and also less momentously trying to assess which checkout line to bet on at a food market. Here he is despairing and there he is trudging on. (When Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1990, Brabner proposed cowriting the full-length autobio comic ”Our Cancer Year”; here’s that, too.) ”American Splendor” presents Pekar as drawn on the page, Pekar as brilliantly interpreted by Paul Giamatti, and the actual Pekar, in the double role of narrator and interview subject – sometimes all at once.
The magic act is thrilling, and truly surprising. At one point, as the Ur-Pekar narrates the experience, Giamatti’s screen-Pekar and Hope Davis as Brabner sit in a Los Angeles theater watching a play based on Pekar’s life taken from Pekar’s cartoons, with Donal Logue as a stage-Pekar and Molly Shannon as a stage-Brabner. In another atom-smashing trick, Giamatti and actor Judah Friedlander, who perfectly captures the king-of-nerds personality of Pekar’s real-life VA colleague Toby Radloff, sit ”off camera” after they’ve shot a reenactment, watching the real Pekar and Radloff pick up the conversation – about jelly beans – that the fake Pekar and Radloff have just ended.
Such moments are enough to make a movie lover bark out loud, exultant. Just as the author, in his comic books, discovered an original way to honor the challenges of everyday life, so have Berman and Pulcini – documentarians by profession – come up with an inventive new movie hybrid that is its own formal breakthrough.
Rarer yet, for all the elegance and verve of their solution, the filmmakers keep the focus on the characters – indeed, on the casual heroism of the ordinary which is the profound revelation of the whole meta-Pekar project – yet don’t get precious about their production team’s own superb craft. The jazz soundtrack is meticulous, reflecting Pekar’s own eclectic tastes – Jay McShann’s ”Blue Devil’s Jump” and performances by John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, and Dizzy Gillespie among the platters – but never laid on (as so much soundtrack so often is) to show off, or as an emotional shortcut. The physical details of screen-Pekar’s dingy, working-class, pack rat’s life, lovingly assembled by production designer Thérèse DePrez, never fetishize (and thus condescend to) the elements of such a life. (Everyone from Cleveland to Nome, Alaska, has handled tea mugs like the ones placed in the actors’ hands.)
Entrusted with playing real people bedecked in eccentricity, Giamatti and Davis, two paragons of old-fashioned indie integrity, respond with such warmth and respect that the poignant regularly mutates into the honestly hilarious. (The downest downtown scribbler couldn’t make up the screwball circumstances of the quick Pekar-Brabner courtship.) Those awed or even slightly spooked by cartoonist Crumb as seen in Terry Zwigoff’s great 1994 documentary about him, meanwhile, are treated, in James Urbaniak’s precise performance, to a sensitive portrait of the artist as a good friend.
There’s something tender and ineffably, existentially sad about Pekarville, and something exasperating, too – the guy can be such a crank. The story of someone’s cancer treatment is the opposite of sexy. Those tea mugs are so familiar – and so awful! Yet the real Harvey Pekar is also a man who has established a family, fought back illness, made a mark on modern literature (in the footsteps of his hero, Theodore Dreiser), and inspired one of the best movies of the year, advancing the careers of Berman and Pulcini, Giamatti and Davis in the process. Transcending Cleveland has nothing to do with the magnitude of the triumph.