Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) worked in a hospital records office back in the seventies, but his wife had just left him and the stress and shouting involved was making him lose his voice. He had happened to meet fellow jazz music enthusiast and comic book artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) at a second hand sale, and they became friends, which eventually led Harvey to believe he could write his own comics, but unfortunately he couldn't even draw a straight line. Luckily, Crumb offered to provide the artwork, and the comic book American Splendor was born, detailing Harvey's everyday life and his gloomy outlook on it. The work was an unexpected success, and brought Harvey cult celebrity status, yet throughout it all, Harvey stayed working as a file clerk.
Written by the directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and based on Pekar's and Joyce Brabner's comic books, American Splendor sets out right away to mix drama and documentary and recreations of the original comics. Pekar narrates his life story, and appears onscreen for interview segments, so we can compare Giamatti's rendering of the man with the real thing. Not only that, but others in Pekar's life turn up as well, including his wife Joyce; this could have been an alienating device, as if the directors didn't have faith in their actors, but the film makers don't overdo it, and it awkwardly draws you into their world. Pekar has a strong enough personality to carry the film: pessimistic, cranky but understandable; Giamatti portrays him with a perpetual scowl on his features, hunched over and exasperated with the world.
Joyce describes him as obsessive compulsive, and it's true that his collecting impulse has filled his rundown house with old records and comics, almost to the exclusion of everything else. He finds solace in these things, and when faced with other people, whose company he needs just as much, he tends to lose his patience or his temper. The first thing he said to comic store worker Joyce when they met face to face was that she should know he had had a vasectomy, and when he takes her back to his place after a meal, he doesn't tidy up so she will get an accurate impression of him. When Joyce throws up almost immediately after passionately kissing him, she knows they are made for each other and proposes marriage.
It's a resentful cynicism and the need to combat loneliness that runs through the film. At one point Harvey meets an old school friend who has heard of his work and tells him that she is so busy with her husband and kids that she has little time to do the reading she would like to. This sends Harvey off into a weekend of depression, perversely claiming that it's a beautiful world; it's as if he can't appreciate it, but has moments of heartbreaking optimism that don't improve his temperament. Another time he goes with his work colleague Toby, a man who goes on to make a living as a professional nerd, to see the film Revenge of the Nerds, leaving Harvey furious at this glamourisation of a type of person who he believes will always be downtrodden. He is, in his own way, an activist for the outsiders and the generally pissed-off-but-largely-useless of this world.
While Giamatti is excellent in his role, if you see him next to the real Pekar it doesn't seem authentic enough, unlike the interpretations of the other actors. The film is always at one remove until Harvey contracts cancer, and his fear takes him over, ruining his string of appearances on the David Letterman show (which he claims he only did for comic book publicity), and forcing him to confront his own mortality. This is presented as mundanely as the rest of Pekar's life, and he also turns it into a comic book, inspired by Joyce, making Harvey's life far more precious to him. As sympathetic as this is, you pretty much have the measure of every character within minutes of them appearing onscreen, and the drama feels one note. Perhaps more of the documentary footage would have helped, as with Pekar's friend R. Crumb's biographical film, because, as the play scene suggests, you never shake that feeling of watching performances, no matter how accurate they may be. Music by Mark Suozzo.
American director who has worked with Robert Pulcini on a series of documentaries, including Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, The Young and the Dead and the forthcoming Wanderlust. Also directed American Splendor, the acclaimed biopic of comic icon Harvey Pekar and an adaptation of bestselling expose The Nanny Diaries.
Robert Pulcini (1964 - )
American director who has worked with Shari Springer Berman on a series of documentaries, including Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, The Young and the Dead and the forthcoming Wanderlust. Also directed American Splendor, the acclaimed biopic of comic icon Harvey Pekar and an adaptation of bestselling expose The Nanny Diaries.