"American Splendor"

Cult comic-book writer Harvey Pekar -- crank and peculiar optimist -- is brought to life in a remarkable narrative film that's also part animation and documentary.

Published August 15, 2003 7:49PM (EDT)

The semi-legendary cult comic-book writer Harvey Pekar is more generous and open than you'd expect a crank to be. And Pekar is a crank. His "American Splendor" comics -- which he has been writing since 1975 and which have been illustrated by various artists, chief among them R. Crumb -- are extensive catalogs of his neuroses and insecurities, highly detailed ruminations on his disappointments and loneliness. They're interior diaries dense with cross-hatching, figuratively and often literally speaking. Pekarland is a world of small lines that, by crisscrossing or nestling up close to one another, add up to shadows, giving us something like the texture of everyday life.

But nobody gets to be a genuine crank (as opposed to a hip showoff) without being something of a closet idealist. The thing that strikes you most about Pekar -- as he comes across both in his comics and in the new movie about his life, also called "American Splendor" -- is how open he is to the people around him, how curious he is about how they think, feel and talk. No matter how eccentric or self-obsessed he seems to be, this isn't a man who's curled in on himself. The "American Splendor" comics are peopled with the folks Pekar has encountered in everyday life: His co-workers at the Cleveland Veteran's Administration hospital, where he worked for years as a clerk; wives, current and ex-, and girlfriends, real and imaginary; friends or acquaintances he runs into on the street. He captures the rhythms and nuances of their language in ways that prove he has truly listened to them. Maybe it's his lifelong jazz obsession that has tuned his ear to the curving tones and multilayered meanings of everyday speech. But however he came by them, there are few contemporary writers of any stripe who come off as gifted at truly hearing as Pekar does.

So how do you make a movie about the gift of hearing? Or, for that matter, about cross-hatching? I'm still not sure how Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who wrote and directed "American Splendor," and Paul Giamatti, who stars in it, pulled it off. But "American Splendor" -- a narrative picture with many of the qualities of a documentary, not to mention a comic book -- is one of those rare, inventively made movies that isn't so taken with its own novelty it loses sight of its characters. Its warmth is for real, and it enwraps you.

Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar -- or, rather, he plays the comic-book version of Pekar, which (partly owing to the fact that he was drawn by so many different illustrators) is very much like the real Pekar, and yet not. We can see this because the real Harvey Pekar is also in the movie, as well as some of the other characters in his books, like his wife, Joyce Brabner, and his eccentric, nerdy co-worker, Toby Radloff. They appear now and then like spacer beads in a necklace, accenting the fictionalized truth of the movie version of their story by addressing questions being asked by an off-camera interviewer, or just talking about what their lives are like.

These characters are also portrayed by actors: Judah Friedlander is Radloff, a devout Catholic who lives with his mother and has a passion for gourmet jelly beans, and who speaks in precise, clipped, nasal tones, as if every word were accented by a highlighter. Hope Davis is Brabner, a woman of laid-back but glittering intelligence, and one who's deeply and healthily in touch with her own neuroses. Playing her, Davis wears a long, dark wig with heavy-duty bangs, and she peers out at the world through a pair of giant tortoiseshell glasses, the better to drink it all in with.

It sounds more confusing than it is, having all these real people running around alongside the actors who play them. But "American Splendor" feels seamless and whole. There's no jerkiness to its internal rhythm; it jives in perfect counterpoint with the admittedly oddball beat of Harvey Pekar and his world.

You don't need to know the "American Splendor" comics to slip into tune with that world. Giamatti helps us lock into it early on, bringing the comic-book stories to life, which, in turn, illuminate some very real corners of Harvey Pekar's life. In images lifted straight out of the comics' panels, we see Giamatti knocking around the streets of Cleveland (where the real Pekar has lived for years), past drab storefronts that still speak with desperate optimism of the promise of the 1950s. The movie opens sometime around 1975, and we see Giamatti sitting on a doctor's table, awaiting a prognosis -- for some reason he's lost his voice (he's sure it's cancer, although, at that point at least, it's not), and he's told he must rest it for a while or risk losing it altogether. He returns home to his apartment (it has the slapdash, weedy messiness of a true intellectual's crib) to find his second wife, a brisk academic, throwing her things into a bag and announcing sharply, "This plebian lifestyle just isn't working for me, OK?"

Giamatti pleads with her, but, trying to follow doctor's orders, he doesn't want to speak. There's wildness in his eyes, and his face is creased in a tortured, self-protective grimace (we come to see that's a look Pekar wears a lot, even when he's happy). Finally, he has to let it out, and the words come out in a pathetic squeak that's equal parts painful and funny: "Don't go."

But of course, she does, because that's just the sort of thing that would happen to Pekar. Those big heartbreaks, as well as the everyday ones, are the stuff of his work, and of the movie. Berman and Pulcini show us the philosophical side of Pekar, but they also make it clear that he hasn't been so busy thinking about his life that he's forgotten to live it. We see Giamatti-as-Pekar trudging to work at his dull but secure job, bellyaching about not being able to meet chicks, rooting around at garage sales seeking out rare jazz sides (he loves the thrill of the hunt but can't resist grumbling that a 50-cent Jay McShann side is overpriced).

Good things happen to Pekar, too: He meets Robert Crumb, who, in the early '60s, worked as a commercial artist at the greeting card company American Greetings, in Cleveland. The two strike up a friendship, and Pekar (who's nothing if not persistent) somehow gets Crumb to illustrate one of the comic-book stories he has already worked out on a sheet of paper with crude stick figures and voice balloons. The comics take off, or rather tunnel off: They're strictly an underground taste. But they do earn Pekar some loyal fans, and they also help him crack his perpetual loneliness -- they're instrumental in hooking him up with Brabner, who begins a mail correspondence with Pekar while she's working as a Delaware comic-book-store clerk (as well as teaching writing classes in prison).

The exoskeleton of "American Splendor" is traditional in its own way: The first half of the movie details Pekar's rise to underground fame and not-so-huge fortune. In the second half, the conflicts get tougher, but Pekar, in his characteristically griping, gloomy way, rises to meet them. We get a glimpse into his contentious-yet-happy marriage, we see clips of his infamous appearances on the David Letterman show (which remind us just what a smirking tool the pre-bypass Letterman used to be) and we get a window into his battle with cancer (which Pekar and Brabner later chronicled in a comic called "Our Cancer Year").

Berman and Pulcini find some innovative but organic ways to tell their story: In a few sequences, live-action segues magically into animation and back again. And most crucially of all, they capture the grumpy humanity of the "American Splendor" comics, which themselves are potently cinematic, though not in an obvious way. In his introduction to a compilation of the comics, Crumb writes about how difficult it is for artists to draw Pekar's characters. "It is a challenging task to draw ordinary people realistically, to give them unique personal qualities in a series of panels," he says. And that's the trick: There are points in the "American Splendor" comics where nothing much changes from panel to panel, other than a character's facial expressions; there are no skyscrapers to leap over or giant webs to sling. Instead, you get stories like this one: We see Pekar engaged in a discussion with his pompous but weirdly wise co-worker, Mr. Boats, about how Pekar, who peddles used pop records to his colleagues as a sideline, never brings him anything good, like Nat King Cole with strings. "I don't have any, Mr. Boats ... I don't run across it," Pekar explains earnestly. But Boats has already turned his back on him, swinging the prow of his bow-tied girth in the other direction, his giant horn-rimmed glasses the most prominent feature on his very large face: "Yeah, you got it ... You're keepin' it at home, though! You won't turn loose the good stuff ... you just sell the junk!"

The exchange is hilarious in the comic, and even funnier in the movie. (Boats is played, to great, rolling, comedic effect, by Earl Billings.) The filmmakers capture the delicate everyday repartee of people who know each other well, and who know how to give each other holy hell for fun. What comes across is how much Pekar likes the people around him, not in spite of their quirks but because of them.

In one of the movie's most breathtakingly weird moments -- and one that's so difficult to pull off, I'm still amazed the filmmakers managed it -- the camera pulls back from a scene between Giamatti and Friedlander, as Pekar and Radloff, to show us the parameters of the movie set, widening our view until we see the real Pekar and Radloff huddled over a tray of gourmet jellybeans at one of the craft-services tables. Their discussion of the beans' relative merits segues into a casual discussion of the various ways of dealing with loneliness. Giamatti and Friedlander have retreated to folding chairs in the background, but we see them watching and listening to the real-life people they've been playing. The fourth wall has been broken down not just for us but for the actors, and it's revelatory for us to see just how amazed they are to be in the presence of the very people they've channeled so much energy into portraying.

"American Splendor" must have been a field day for these actors; they're all wonderful. James Urbaniak plays Robert Crumb with just the right amount of crackpot insouciance. Judah Friedlander shows us the humor in Radloff's precisely ordered way of looking at the world, without making jokes at his expense -- we understand immediately why Pekar likes him so much, even though many people might find him annoying.

Hope Davis hits all the right notes in playing Brabner, capturing perfectly her exasperated love for Pekar: Her devotion to him is bound up with restless impatience, but it's no less deep and genuine for that. (And when you see the real-life Joyce Brabner, with her deadpan-imp demeanor and her acorn-pointed chin, you realize just how perfectly cast Davis is.)

And Giamatti is the most perfect Pekar you could imagine -- other than, of course, the real Pekar himself. The movie world is full of terrific character actors who never get a lead role, simply because they're rarely the right "type" for a lead. Thank God this one came along for Giamatti: He carries a bit of Pekar's soul inside him, capturing the slouchy grace of his eternally dejected walk, and understanding intuitively the expressiveness of Pekar's eternal scowl.

The real-life Pekar, as we see him here, is grizzled and graying and constantly grousing; his voice modulates somewhere between a growl and a strangled whine. But instead of making Pekar seem like a crotchety old man (he's now in his 60s), that griping lends him an air of youthfulness, or at least agelessness -- he hasn't grown out of his constant complaining, he's simply grown into it. Giamatti, a young man playing a preternaturally old one, shows us that Pekar's constant groaning about life and its unfairness is actually a kind of vitality. The world of Harvey Pekar and of "American Splendor" is a weirdly hopeful one. It's a quintessentially American world with dashes of Greek tragedy, French existentialism, Italian neo-realism and Russian poetry tossed in. Pekar has every right to complain, and, God willing, he'll continue to do so. Life has a way of pushing at you from all directions. Once you stop pushing back against it, then you know you're really a goner.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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