Harvey Pekar: Paul Giamatti
Joyce Brabner: Hope Davis
Toby Radloff: Judah Frielander
Written and Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert
Independent films get a raw deal. Even if they are critically acclaimed,
they were few times get the box office receipts “great” movies should get.
American Splendor follows suit. It received glowing reviews throughout
printed and electronic media, but got the usual paltry sum independent films earn at the box office. Somehow, I do not think the makers of American Splendor mind.
It seems like they were after art rather than dollar signs.
American Splendor is an unusual movie. It is the adaptation of
the comic books that Harvey Pekar wrote about his own life. It blends unique
animation, voiceovers from the real Harvey, and short glimpses of the actual people, with Harvey and his wife appearing in
interviews among others. And it all works.
None of the gimmicks seem like gimmicks. They all blend together
with the amazing acting of Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce to equal a wholly original masterpiece.
It has been said that real life is stranger than fiction. In the case
of Harvey Pekar, real life is quirkier than fiction. Pekar is a complicated hero,
depressed and barely buoyant for much of the picture. He works the unexciting
job of file clerk at a Cleveland hospital. He stingingly collects records. He scowls. Where we connect with Harvey
Pekar is in the American ideal of achieving your goals, your dreams. He wants
to do more than what he has been doing, and he’s going to become famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it)
in spite of all the things that stand in his way. Namely himself.
The film starts with the point of the movie. Young boys in superhero costumes
trick or treat on Halloween. They all hold up their bags and one by one, candy
is dropped into Superman, Batman, Robin, and the Green Lantern’s bags. When
the woman comes to a young Harvey standing at the end of the line, she asks who he’s supposed to be. Harvey, who is not in costume, very sincerely says, “I’m Harvey Pekar.” It mirrors our perceptions of heroes. We place larger than
life mythical characters on pedestals while real living, breathing heroes stand in our midst.
The action continues
as an adult Pekar at a doctor’s office being checked out for his loss of voice.
He is reduced to a tiny, screeching tone attributed by the doctor to too much screaming and yelling. When Pekar gets home, his second wife is leaving. He manages
to get her to stop in her tracks and she waits for his words. All he can manage
is a barely audible squeak along the lines of “don’t go.”
It isn’t until
Harvey meets cult comic book artist Robert Crumb at a garage sale that his life starts seeing light. After Crumb makes it big on the success of Fritz the Cat and other comics, Harvey sees an opening to make
an unconventional comic book. The revelation comes as he waits for a Jewish woman
to finish at a check out counter at a local grocery store. Caught at the back
of the line as she haggles with the management and cashier, Harvey’s animated alter ego begins to shout at him to do
something with his life. So he does. He
leaves the line and rushes home to sketch out what would eventually become the first issue of American Splendor, a comic book
all about his life featuring him as the main character. He gets his pal Crumb
to draw the first issue and soon his work is being acclaimed and touted as art. Still,
money doesn’t roll in with the independent comic and he continues working as a file clerk.
Years later, an American
Splendor fan named Joyce Brabner (Davis) writes him asking for a copy of an issue she missed.
Correspondence continues, eventually leading up to her visiting Harvey. His
first words when meeting her at the airport are that he’s had a vasectomy. Romantic
stuff, indeed. But their romance blossoms during the visit, albeit strangely. Brabner proposes to him seconds after vomiting in his bathroom, and a dazed Pekar
The remainder of the
film is a testament to their love, through his cancer and uneasy courtship of fame, among other surprises.
is sharply written, containing wit and poignant moments when you least expect them.
The movie is the tale of Harvey Pekar and the filmmakers take exquisite care to tell it.
They cast the movie
brilliantly. While the first response to casting a biopic is to cast actors that
look the most like their real life counterparts, the American Splendor scenario is the blueprint to follow for all
others. Take character actors that can inhabit the real life counterparts in
Hope Davis is a character
actress seen in films from About Schmidt to The Secret Lives of Dentists.
But she does not like the real-life Joyce Brabner. The filmmakers try
to disguise this with a black wig and Brabner-like wardrobe, but the real characterization comes with the inflection of her
voice, the look in her eyes, the little mannerisms that many performers neglect.
Paul Giamatti doesn’t
look like Pekar a whole lot, but every mannerism he employs is spot on. Giamatti
is one of Hollywood’s go-to guys (along with William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and John C. Reilly) for playing
shlubs – average, Midwestern-type guys who aren’t dreamy or picturesque, but often are the best characters. So when Giamatti opened his mouth and a screeching mess came out, I thought it was
the work of him and the filmmakers trying to give Pekar a character-defining quirk, not unlike Giamatti’s work in the
past. Then they interview the real Harvey Pekar soon after, and I realized Giamatti
was just taking hold of the character. Giamatti nails Pekar right down to the
wide-eyed scowl that seems to be at both their disposals at any time. It’s
a splendid performance in the splendid movie that is American Splendor.