SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
The 'Splendor' of Harvey Pekar's Life
By Jeremy Mathews
Paul Giamatti plays comic book icon Harvy Pekar - who also plays himself - freaking out over this woman's cheapness in the brilliant 'American Splendor.'  

“American Splendor”
Fine Line Cinema
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Screenplay by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on comic books by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
Produced by Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Earl Billings, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander
Rated R

(out of four)

“American Splendor’s” style suits the personality of its subject as well as any biopic ever made. While many films can look at a person’s life through highlights, trials, tribulations and inspirational victories, writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini thoroughly capture their character.
And to capture him, they use media from traditional dramatic film to video documentary and animation. It’s a real tour de force.

The film comes from the “American Splendor” comic books by Harvey Pekar, who wrote about his seemingly uneventful life as an office slave. He quickly went from being an out-of-luck loser to a famous underground writer…who still never could quit his day job.

He couldn’t even draw anything but stick figures, either. Friends and illustrators such as cult comic book icon Robert Crumb fleshed out the preschool-level drawings because the writing’s social commentary was so impressive.

Paul Giamatti plays Pekar, but Pekar himself appears in documentary and archival footage and delivers the narration, commenting that Giamatti looks nothing like him. As that statement suggests, this technique puts Giamatti in the unusual position of having the person whom he’s playing on screen for a direct comparison of his performance.

Fortunately, he and Hope Davis, who plays Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner, create heartfelt characters that stay engaging throughout the real-life footage. In the representation of Pekar’s early appearances on David Letterman’s show, for example, Giamatti as Pekar leaves the green room, then Davis as Joyce watches the actual footage of the real-life Pekar on the show. (Giamatti recreates the final, controversial appearance offscreen, as it’s an intense moment of Pekar struggling with his beliefs and limited success.)

Even with the strong performances, the setup could easily have backfired. In one scene, the camera pans off of the set to a white background with the real Pekar and his nerdy co-worker Toby Radloff talking about the catering while seeing themselves portrayed. This jaunting move takes the audience out of the story, but recalls Pekar’s philosophy. The movie becomes part of Pekar’s life and therefore his art, just as his comics did.

In one scene, his co-workers bug him about whether or not they’ll be in the next issue.

Things become more interesting when a playwright writes a piece about Harvey and we’re watching the actors watch other actors play them.

Also, Pekar meets Joyce because she’s a fan of the comic book. She sends him a letter when the comic-book store she works in sells all the copies before she gets one. When they meet in person, she doesn’t know what to expect because different artists draw the comics differently—some with big, grotesque, angry Harveys with stink lines (“Those are motion lines.”), others with meeker versions of the hero.

It takes a strong personality to put up with Harvey for extended periods of time, but Brabner definitely meets that qualification. Davis captures the spirit of the less-than-sentimental woman who hastily marries Harvey despite his two previous failed marriages and the knowledge she’s gained from reading his books. While never lovey-dovey, the couple’s strong bond comes across throughout the film, including the later scenes, in which she makes Pekar artistically deal with a problem that he’d rather keep inside.

While much of the film contains serious subject matter, the film keeps Pekar’s sense of irony present. In one scene, he’s lost his voice and his second wife leaves him, but it becomes humorous as he tries to plead with her, but only squeaks come out.

The supporting cast also contributes a great deal, creating the amusing, confusing world that drives Pekar crazy. The funniest is Judah Friedlander as Toby, a slow-talking co-worker who finds comfort in the “Revenge of the Nerds” films, much to Harvey’s chagrin. He eventually achieves his own level of fame and openness for exploitation thanks to Pekar’s work.

Meanwhile, Pekar continually expresses what he thinks, striving to make a difference by exposing the small details that infuriate him and, in the process, expressing what makes life so special. And no film could have done it better than this one.

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