American Splendor 

(R) 4 stars

(R) 4 stars
I became aware of Harvey Pekar through his appearances on David Letterman’s old NBC show. In those days, Dave’s guest roster incorporated a number of eccentrics, from lovable Pee-Wee Herman to the repellent Brother Theodore. The big difference between them and Harvey was that they were actually comedians appearing in character, while Harvey was the real deal. A grouchy file clerk from Cleveland, he had garnered a measure of fame by writing a comic book based on his own life. With drawings provided by a number of noted genre artists, including R. Crumb, American Splendor contained several snippets from the everyday life of Harvey: an argument he had with his boss, a trip to the store to buy distilled water, an observed exchange between a mother and her daughter on a bus. I read the comic for a while, before deciding the occasional laugh or pithy observation was not worth the money. It was even more ordinary than my life, I decided. The only issues that were really interesting were the ones where he chronicled his appearances on Letterman. Those appearances were about to end. Harvey was wild-eyed and quick to anger even on the first visit and he grew ever more prickly over time. On his final appearance, Harvey came on stage in such an agitated state that Dave barely teased him at all. Nothing Letterman did was going to matter, however. Harvey launched into a tirade about the parent company of NBC and, when Dave reminded him that he was appearing on a comedy program, became even more aggressive. The segment ended with Letterman cutting to a commercial break and making it crystal clear that, when he returned, it would be without Harvey. When I heard that American Splendor had been made into a film, I was cheered only by the fact that Harvey would be played by Paul Giamatti, the remarkable character actor who served as foil to Howard Stern in Private Parts. Although there is little resemblance between the two, I knew Giamatti would find a way to ethically convey the essence of the man. And he does. American Splendor is a wonderful film, one of the best I’ve seen this year. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini wrote and directed the production, amazingly using the life and times of a chronic sourpuss to create a movie that is compelling, funny, touching and even inspirational. Even more amazing — I think they did it without cheating. Paul Giamatti portrays sad sacks better than anybody (imagine how much better Adaptation would have been had he starred instead of Nicolas Cage) and he is extraordinary as Harvey Pekar, especially impressive given that fact that the real Harvey Pekar, in addition to narrating, appears onscreen as well. The film is fluid that way, lilting from actor to the real man, from set piece to comic panel, in the most eye-pleasing fashion. One segment streams from white to stark-comic-book-panel to actor-in-comic-panel-against-drawn-background to actor-against-real-background. Beautiful work. Aside from an absurd opening sequence of a young Harvey (Daniel Tay) trick or treating sans costume, the screenplay is a winner. We see adult Harvey meeting greeting card artist R. Crumb (James Urbaniak, hitting the perfect note of hepcat insouciance). The two build a friendship via their shared love of jazz, with Harvey later growing jealous when Crumb establishes a career in underground comics (“They made a movie about him, too,” notes the real Harvey in voice-over). Determined to get a piece of the pie, but utterly lacking in artistic skill, Harvey begins writing about his life and illustrating his words with stick figure drawings. Crumb eventually offers to draw some of the stories and the American Splendor comic is born. Over time, Harvey becomes a minor cult figure, as do co-workers Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander, mesmerizing as a self-professed nerd who clips and swallows his words) and Mr. Boats (Earl Billings, gliding through the role of boss like a parade float). Harvey’s life changes when fan Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis, taking a character that looks like an adult version of one of the Peanuts kids and turning her into a layered woman) becomes his wife, but his job, and his attitude, remain the same. (SPOILER ALERT) We follow Harvey through troubling visits to the doctor (which provide the film a dramatic arc), the Letterman appearances (real clips are shown, except for the final appearance, which the filmmakers wanted to show from Pekar’s point of view), a medical crisis and the acquisition of a daughter, Danielle (Madylin Sweeten). And we see Harvey grow. Well, a little. (END SPOILERS) So why should we want to watch a self-aggrandizing crank for an hour and 41 minutes? Because within those dark eyes lies a spirit that refuses to succumb. In his American Splendor comics, Harvey Pekar operates on the belief that there is art in the mundane. American Splendor, the film, removes any doubt.

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