Giamatti plays comic book icon Harvy Pekar - who also plays
himself - freaking out over this woman's cheapness in the brilliant
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
(out of four)
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
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
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
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
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.