American Splendor

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/25/06 12:42:30

"As unique and entertaining as its subject."
5 stars (Awesome)

Those of us who've been reading "American Splendor" for the past few decades (I've been a fan for about fifteen years) may consider Harvey Pekar a friend even if we've never met him.

Pekar, who until recent years was a file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital (he's retired now), wrote the autobiographical American Splendor comic book as an alternative to the unrealistic, power-fantasy domination of superhero comics; the artists who have given flesh to his stories over the years range from the underground-comix godhead R. Crumb (a friend of Pekar's from way back) to relative whippersnappers like Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For) and Chester Brown (I Never Liked You).

Pekar's style is usually anecdotal -- he's like a street-corner stand-up comedian regaling you about this nutty guy he knows or this weird shit that happened to him. He makes entire stories out of losing his glasses or making lemonade. He also, with the help of wife Joyce Brabner and artist Frank Stack, turned his early-'90s ordeal with cancer (not his last bout with it, sadly) into the spiky, unflattering, and almost unbearably real graphic novel Our Cancer Year. Pekar had turned his laser-like focus on mundane, everyday events for so long that when he used the same technique on the daily grind of chemo and sweating out test results, the result was devastating.

The movie American Splendor limits Pekar's cancer to the last act or so, and sweeps through it mainly in a montage of panels drawn from Our Cancer Year. In effect, the graphic novel is literally adapted to film -- there it is, Pekar's words and Frank Stack's art, right there on the screen. American Splendor is a highly unconventional movie that, given its source material, could hardly have been told any other way. There have been so many different Harveys over the years, as depicted by myriad cartoonists and even portrayed in stage adaptations of the comic, that it makes sense for the movie to offer us at least four more Harveys. There's the real Harvey, filmed as he records his narration for the film, and seeming pragmatically disinterested in the script. There's a version of Harvey as a boy, in a brilliant device (little Harvey on Halloween, dressed as himself, trick-or-treating alongside various kids dressed as superheroes) that establishes his stubborn resistance to doing whatever everyone else is doing to get the goodies. There's a scene re-enacting one of the stage productions of American Splendor, with Donal Logue and Molly Shannon amusingly miscast as Harvey and Joyce. And in the audience watching this stage adaptation is Paul Giamatti, who plays the "movie" version of Harvey.

It works like a charm. The movie is as unclassifiable as the comic -- neither documentary nor biopic, or maybe both; in any case, its own ornery critter. Giamatti-as-Harvey shleps from event to event, remaining the same prickly persona whether interacting with nerdy coworker Toby (Judah Friedlander) or with nerdy talk-show host David Letterman. (Pekar and Andy Kaufman have more than just Letterman notoriety in common, I've always thought.) Coming off of his third marriage, which failed in part because of a vocal nodule that prevented him from talking to his new wife, Harvey approaches a fourth possibility -- comics fan and writer Joyce Brabner, played here by Hope Davis in exactly the role that suits her odd, neurotic rhythms best -- with equal parts hope and trepidation. He does just about everything he can to deromanticize himself for Joyce upon their first meeting; Joyce isn't into romance either, and thus begins a union that will last for the better part of two decades and counting.

Harvey and Joyce are not the usual beautiful people falling in love beautifully. By movie standards they are quite an unconventional couple; by the yardstick of our own experience they're refreshingly credible. Hope Davis enters the movie belatedly, bringing much-needed friction with her; Giamatti plays various levels of exasperation off of her. Their first kiss is an awkward disaster, and they pick and kvetch at each other once they're married, but because of all this (not despite it all) we believe in their love. An artist herself, Joyce uses her creativity to help Harvey's writing career, such as when she whips up a Harvey Pekar doll for Harvey to use as a promo while appearing on Letterman. The movie doesn't really have time to get into their shared politics -- "strident leftist," as described by Harvey -- though it touches on them a little.

Giamatti doesn't quite attempt a Pekar impersonation (hilariously, Pekar's narration plays over Giamatti slumping down the street: "He don't look anything like me, but whatever"), which would have been disastrous in a movie where we often see the real thing. He gets the pugnacious-intellectual soul of Harvey as seen in the comics, as if he'd internalized all the stories and carved everything off of himself that wasn't Harvey. (A thinning hairpiece and a stooping walk is about all he does physically to suggest Pekar, yet he looks entirely different here than he has in any other role I've seen him in.) Most of the movie is deadpan comedy, linking itself tonally with other indie-comix films like Crumb and Ghost World. But when the narrative takes its turn towards cancer, Giamatti and Davis have a nicely subdued moment on the steps outside the doctor's office -- "Who'll take care of you if I'm gone?" he nearly sobs -- and an equally fine moment when the phone rings with good news and the mood is less exultant than just a quiet sigh of relief.

Events are necessarily foreshortened in the film -- this might've been even better as a 10-episode cable series (HBO Films produced it) -- and the late-inning introduction of Harvey and Joyce's adopted daughter Danielle feels a little tacked on, if only because that story seems to demand its own movie. Still, I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this entertainingly fractured multi-portrait. After seeing the movie, I went back and read some of the early issues of American Splendor, in which the younger Harvey is alone and bitter and afraid of dying alone and obscure. I had to smile, remembering the final images of the movie, with Harvey beaming and surrounded by family and friends, up there on the big screen.

It's the one part of the movie that doesn't quite hew to the hard-scrabble, pessimistic, resigned-to-a-flunky-life tone of the comics, but it has my full permission to do so.

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