Comic books come in all shapes and sizes, but it's really only the superhero variety that end up on the big screen; for every Ghost World there's a dozen Daredevils or X-Men. American Splendor goes a little way towards redressing the balance, and delivers a hero we can all identify with – Harvey Pekar.
Pekar was a jazz-and-comic book-obsessed misanthrope from Cleveland, Ohio who befriended Robert Crumb in the early sixties, before Crumb had made his name as a pioneer of subversive comic art. As Crumb became more and more famous, the pair stayed in touch and inspired by his friend's success, Pekar decided he too had something to offer the world of comics – his own tedious life. Pekar couldn't draw, but with Crumb – and then other artists – agreeing to illustrate his friend's hilariously mundane real-life tales of working as a hospital file clerk, Pekar's American Splendor books quickly became an underground comic success.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of Pekar's stories (and hence Pekar's own life) is one of the most unusual, inventive biopics you're likely to see. The directors remain true to the comic's central concept – namely, this is not fiction but real life in all its often ugly glory – and turn in a film that is part indie comedy-drama, and part documentary. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar in the story of his rise from grouchy nobody to grouchy cult figure, but the film is narrated by Pekar himself and we often cut back to the man – now 65 – for a series of candid interviews. In addition, actual frames from his comics are used to advance the narrative, thought bubbles sometimes appear above characters' heads and scenes are introduced with onscreen comic book writing.
It's fascinating comparing the real man to the screen version, and although Giamatti's impersonation seems exaggerated, he captures something in Pekar's slumped frame, sneering expression and ragged, strangely pitched voice that makes for a compelling performance. By having Harvey himself feature so heavily, Berman and Pulcini risk reducing the audience's empathy with the version actually telling the story (especially when Pekar makes voiceover comments like "Here's me. Or the guy playing me. He looks nothing like me, but whatever"), but it is to Giamatti's credit that he actually turns his character into a sympathetic, bizarrely loveable one.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Hope Davis plays Joyce Brabner, the comic book fan that Harvey makes his third wife, and if anything, Joyce is even more cynical and pessimistic than Harvey. The scene in which they go on their first 'date' is deliciously awkward, starting with a row in a restaurant and ending with Joyce vomiting back at Pekar's apartment before announcing that they should skip courtship and just get married. Elsewhere, the nearest person that Harvey has to a friend – workmate and über-nerd Toby Radloff – is played by Judah Friedlander; it seems that Friedlander is performing a grotesquely over-the-top caricature, until the real Toby steps into the frame and – godammit – the guy really is like that. The moment in which Toby explains to Harvey why that long-forgotten movie 'classic' Revenge of the Nerds has changed his life is a definite highlight.
Pekar's profile hit an all-time high in the mid-eighties, when he became a regular guest on David Letterman's talkshow. Harvey knew Letterman only had him on because the audience lapped up his uncompromising grouchiness, but it both allowed him to plug his comics and gave him a welcome break from the filing job that he continued to do, and unsurprisingly, Berman and Pulcini mix up genuine Letterman footage with reconstructions. But is the film's final section that brings real-life harshly into frame.
In 1990, Pekar was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer – his already gloomy outlook on life quickly became terminal despair and having documented his strange life for over a decade in his comics, for the first time Harvey found himself unable to write. So Joyce came to his rescue, employing an artist friend to live with them and draw every stage of Harvey's treatment – the resulting graphic novel, Our Cancer Year – was an acclaimed testament to the couple's ultimately successful struggle against the disease. Giamatti portrays both Harvey's uncomprehending anger and heartbreaking resignation to his perceived fate, and these final scenes are moving without ever being sentimental, Hollywood sentimentality being the one thing Pekar spent a lifetime avoiding.
American Splendor is a richly textured, very human picture, and it is ironic that a man who has dedicated his life to celebrating the everyday should be immortalised on film in such a unique manner. Perhaps a straight-forward dramatic approach might have been more in keeping with the comic itself, but although he'd undoubtedly deny it, Harvey Pekar's life has been – and with the release of this film continues to be – something extraordinary.
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.