American Splendor, the movie, celebrates ordinary life, even though the grumpy inspiration behind it would go to great lengths to argue differently. Harvey Pekar is the phenomenon behind the film, a refreshing melange mixing documentary and snippets of animation into a true story about a grouchy Cleveland file clerk who gains notoriety by writing comic books about his day-to-day doldrums.
You can’t help but like this self-aware loser. Comic book fans have loved the guy since American Splendor, the real comic book, debuted in 1976.
Self-consciousness is among the movie’s many charms. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini work magic using techniques that could easily make it come off pretentious or coy. But the way the real Harvey and his wife Joyce Brabner complement actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who portray them in astounding performances, only adds to the fun, and the level of understanding of these two not-quite-lost souls.
Harvey’s co-worker Toby Radloff gets double treatment, too. Judah Friedlander plays the nerdy gourmet jelly-bean connoisseur with panache, yet it’s even more of a kick when the real Toby shows up in a bright, soundstage documentary sequence to recommend the pina colada-flavored beans with as much gusto as the actor appearing as him did.
American Splendor is a chain of delicious small moments set in grungy, working-class Cleveland and accompanied by a killer soundtrack (John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Marvin Gaye) that reflects Harvey’s obsession with jazz (he’s a music critic as well as clerk and comic writer) and record collecting.
Harvey, in fact, meets comic artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak in a delightful, low-keyed performance) while scrounging around for cheap records. These equally weird guys are naturals as friends, and colleagues, too. Crumb likes Harvey’s scratchy commentary about his daily life, and so he agrees to illustrate his vignettes, which result in the comic American Splendor.
The book takes off in annual installments, with Crumb being one of several artists who draw Harvey and his stories. The various illustrated incarnations of Harvey pop up appealingly throughout the movie, too. When Joyce, an extremely sensitive worker in a comic book store, writes to Harvey to tell him she likes his work, it’s the beginning of a quirky romance. She visits him in Cleveland, upchucks in his pigsty of an apartment on their first date, and soon agrees to marry him.
Still, things are never good for Harvey and Joyce. Harvey still works full-time filing at the VA hospital in Cleveland, and Joyce wants more from life – kids, or a chance to travel and do good in the world. She briefly leaves an unhappy Harvey at home while she ventures abroad to do social and political work.
The comic book does make inroads in American culture, though, most apparently when Harvey appears on David Letterman’s show multiple times (footage of the feisty real Harvey with Dave is spliced in, to brilliant effect) before he alienates the show’s corporate owners with his diatribes. Then there’s a play in Los Angeles based on American Splendor, in which Donal Logue and Molly Shannon play Joyce and Harvey on stage, while Giamatti and Davis watch, while the real Harvey and Joyce comment. It sounds mind-numbing, but it’s really mind-blowing.
The movie’s biggest dramatic arc – one of the few in the film – comes when Harvey beats cancer, and in the process co-writes a new comic autobiography with Joyce and becomes the guardian of a teen girl, Danielle. Somehow, Harvey, the hapless neurotic, ends up with a happy family; American Splendor follows the journey with originality, humor and humanity.
– Leslie Katz