American Splendor (2003)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Writers and directors – Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; director of photography – Terry Stacey; editor – Robert Pulcini; music – Mark Suozzo; production designer – Thérèse DePrez; producer – Ted Hope. Starring – Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Earl Billings (Mr. Boats), Madylin Sweeten (Danielle), Danny Hoch (Marty) and Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Danielle Batone. HBO Films and Fine Line Features. 105 minutes. This film is rated R.

It’s likely that you’ll sit down to watch American Splendor knowing next to nothing about the person whose life it celebrates: Harvey Pekar.

I had only a sketchy idea. But even if you are already acquainted with him from appearances on Late Night with David Letterman or from his unusual comic book American Splendor, you’re likely to see him in a whole new light by the time the credits roll at the end of this affecting biography. The film’s varied portraits -  in cartoon, in dramatic re-enactments, and in brief dalliances with the “real” Harvey Pekar  – work together beautifully, creating a triumphant, innovative addition to the tradition of “biopics.”

Jacques Derrida would have a field day reviewing American Splendor. He argues that a biography gives readers a better picture of the biographer than the subject—after all, we have to take what the biographer is telling us on faith. The book (or the film) is itself a construct based on the biographer’s impressions, assumptions, misconceptions, and interpretations of his subject. And as we read it, we make our own assumptions, our own guesswork, our own interpretations of the words we are given. We might end up light years from the truth about the subject, our impressions corrupted like a message in the game of “telephone.” In the case of American Splendor, we are several times removed from the “real” Mr. Pekar, because we are interpreting a film assembled by a biographer… but the biographer has written the script based on comic books that Mr. Pekar wrote about his own life… comics that were illustrated by someone else.

Is this movie really about Harvey Pekar? You decide.

Here are the facts: Writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini drew inspiration from the autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner. Their film was produced by Ted Hope.

The story takes place in Cleveland, where we meet Pekar in top form, walking along and ranting about his life. He’s a middle-aged, slouching Oscar the Grouch whose trash can is his lousy job as a V.A. hospital file clerk. In his spare time, he waxes philosophical and pessimistic with his acquaintances, expounding upon his miserable fate, the torments of commercial culture and capitalism, and his maddening quest to find a woman. After his second wife storms out of his life, Pekar plunges into despair, finding momentary distraction in his hobbies: comic books and jazz.

Soon he meets Robert Crumb—yes, the Robert Crumb, the gleefully perverse comic book artist – and becomes his friend before Crumb hits the big time. Their friendship lasts, and eventually Pekar hands his first, feeble, stick-figure-populated cartoons to his pal and hero. Crumb is impressed, not by the drawings, but by the dialogue and the concept: a comic about ordinary people with ordinary problems. He becomes Pekar’s artist, and the comic book American Splendor is born. It develops a cult following. One of Pekar’s fans, a comic store manager from Delware named Joyce Brabner, writes to him admiringly, and soon the two are married. Like a badger and a mole, Harvey and Joyce are as strange and sullen a couple the big screen has never seen.

Pekar goes on to fame by way of the David Letterman show, in which the grinning talk show host ignores Pekar’s sales pitch for his comics. Letterman instead exploits the grumpy grizzled guest for laughs. Humiliated, and yet continually drawn back to the spotlight like the proverbial moth to its flame, Pekar becomes increasingly frustrated at this strange marriage of fame, poverty, and depression. It gets worse… and better. He stumbles into a nightmare (cancer) and a blessing (fatherhood.) The latter comes as quite an unlikely surprise; Pekar’s vasectomy is just one many wrinkles in his history that he openly discusses.

How does it all turn out? See the movie.

It’s a wild story, at times hard to believe. And it is made even more compelling by the filmmakers’ gear-shifts between storytelling methods. We first meet Pekar as a cartoon character, right off the pages of his own comic. Then we meet him again through a brilliant comedic performance by Paul Giamatti, who has finally found a movie that gives him enough room to demonstrate his wide range of talents. Lastly we meet the real Mr. Pekar, sitting at a microphone in a sparsely furnished studio narrating the movie, reading from a script someone else wrote. We also get that old Letterman footage.

What makes this work so well is that Giamatti, working with a brilliantly disguised Hope Davis as Joyce, delivers a hilarious, commanding performance as the hunched and snarling Pekar. The costumes, dialogue, the apartment and environment are all convincingly drab, rough-edged, and disordered. If Mike Leigh had grown up in Cleveland and hung around at garage sales reading comic books, he could have made this film, and Giamatti possesses a certain puffy exasperation brings to mind Leigh’s favorite actor, Timothy Spall. Whenever things switch over suddenly to the real Pekar, it is continually startling, much the way director Andre Gregory surprised us by stepping into scene-shifts during Vanya on 42nd Street. Pekar and Giamatti do not look much alike, but the actor has nailed the mannerisms, the wild-eyed sarcasm, the wheezing laryngitis-afflicted voice, the attitude.

Clearly, we are getting an interpretation, a summary, some of which has been altered to make for a smoother film. Thus, some episodes get only “sketchy” treatment. The Letterman chapters seem a bit rushed. The cancer story could have been its own movie; here, it feels like a necessary dramatic crescendo, a final obstacle for Pekar that will either crush him or be conquered. But that was probably the best option. After all, good biographers find drama in what really happened (bad ones drastically revise reality and make manipulative falsities like A Beautiful Mind.) We have seen a hundred cancer stories on the screen. What makes this one unique is not its exploration of the disease and its symptoms; the film hardly bothers to note such specifics. It stands out for focusing on the character, not the cancer, and how the disease brings his life into focus. We see, as he does, what marvelous things have come into his life that were not there before. He has a wife who, odd and cantankerous as she is, loves him. And he has gained more besides.

Many filmmakers would have explored this territory to communicate that life is chaos, meaningless, all the way to the bitter end. Pekar’s closest cinematic relative is Charlie Kaufman’s self-absorbed, self-loathing self-portrait in Adaptation. But Berman and Pulcini’s portrait of Pekar is primarily an affectionate one, finding nobility and heroism amidst the unhygienic details. I walked out of the messy apartments and back alleys of American Splendor strangely inspired and uplifted, where Adaptation, for all of its insight and irony, left me feeling like I need a shower. Kaufman’s cynicism taints his portrayals of himself and others in his life, but Pekar’s cartoons observe human failings without mocking them. They betray a deep affection for the overlooked people of the world, and it overrides his constant complaints.

Thus, the film becomes a comedy instead of a ponderous tragedy. We laugh because we know there is “more than this,” more than failure, more than flaws. We recognize that, for all of his relentless denials, Pekar has grown. He has been given the key… to joy, if not to happiness. His sufferings do not go away, but the introduction and progression of love in his life brings order, comfort, and strength.

Were he to find the courage to ask where such gifts come from, he might yet question whether he is, himself, a character in a work of art that is still being crafted. There is so much joy in the moment that Joyce finds a child standing in her apartment, or in the moment that Harvey puts his arms around his unlikely, unsought, undeserved family. What they’re feeling is grace—blessings for the undeserving, a category in which all of us are included.

But there is more than just the drama of grace at work. There is also the revelation of life as a work of art. As the filmmakers portray the efforts of this frustrated and depressed man to illustrate his own existence, they reveal the rewards of artmaking. As Pekar develops an artistic sensibility, he finds purpose and drama in the details of all the lives around him, including his own. As we watch him translate his mundane existence into comic book art, we discover right along with him that there is no such thing as “mudane existence”, and that wonderful stories and compelling characters are all around us, waiting to be noticed.

The man who said “The unexamined life is not worth living” would come out of American Splendor with a knowing smile. (Well, okay, it was Socrates, and who knows what he would have thought of the film? But my point stands.) What the film proves to us is that meaning, beauty, drama, tragedy, and comedy are there, as deep as you care to dig, in any routine. Seemingly insignificant moments resonate with the potential of epic drama. As Harvey washes dishes, sloppy and disgruntled, the thought bubble over his cartoon representation thinks, “Poor dishwashing has always been my Achilles heel.” See?

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