American Splendor, by turns pugnacious, droll, self-pitying and sentimental, concerns Harvey Pekar, the celebrated underground comic book writer who, thanks to this film, is much more famous now than he was a year ago. Pekar, who’s best known for the American Splendor comic book series that he began in 1975, has built a career on detailing the daily inanities and minor epiphanies of his life in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Pekar’s cultural bequest is American Splendor, his life’s work was as a file clerk in a VA hospital, a job from which he retired in 2001. From this unpromising, quotidian existence, Pekar managed to wring insights into the complex absurdities of everyday living, finding heroism in the cracks of anonymous existence.
As his close friend and collaborator R. Crumb puts it in the preface to the coffee-table compendium of American Splendor, “The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane it verges on exotic.” Elsewhere in his introduction, Crumb maintains that Pekar never recouped the production costs of his comics. But that’s all changed by now and this movie, which deservedly won the Sundance Grand Jury prize in January, is a monument to a minor genius that spent the better part of a lifetime in obscurity and, perhaps worse, in Cleveland.
Like the R. Crumb that we saw in Terry Zwigoff’s celebrated documentary of a few years back, and Zwigoff’s more recent Ghost World, the characters in American Splendor are romantics adrift in a post-industrial America. The high point of culture for R. Crumb, for Harvey Pekar, for Ghost World’s Enid Coleslaw, occurred between the two world wars–which is also when they made 78 rpm records, a key component of all three films. For these hipster preservationists, the hunt for true and uncorrupted culture always goes back to those years. Crumb puts it best in American Splendor when he shakes off a compliment by saying, “It’s not like I’m Blind Lemon Jefferson or Big Mama Thornton or someone.”
This film, which was directed by the wife-husband team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, isn’t a mere biopic, however. In a bold and quite successful move, the co-directors decided to fold documentary elements into the film. Thus, the real-life Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner are present in the film along with the actors who play them, Paul Giamatti (Storytelling) and Hope Davis (About Schmidt). This technique has been tried before–most spectacularly in Stanley Kwan’s Actress (aka Centre Stage), one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.
The chief benefit of mixing documentary and staged footage is that it functions as an effective solution to the problem that bedevils biopics–that is, the difficulty of compressing the complex enormity of a human life into a tightly structured two-hour film. When we watch a film about, say, Abraham Lincoln, or Malcolm X, we’re aware that significant liberties are being taken in order to provide a satisfying narrative. Unavoidably, most biopics hop from one high point to the next, without providing much psychological clarity or scenes of quiet reflection. In American Splendor, however, the interior development of Pekar is provided by the artist himself in voiceover and interviews, a voice that provides the film with its structure even as it leaps all over the place in time.
One problem with this hybrid technique is that the actors are open to scrutiny–we can pass judgment on their work by comparing them to their real-life models. A couple of the minor players are remarkable: Judah Friedlander plays an apparently autistic co-worker of Pekar’s in a turn that is a revelatory gloss on the original, and James Urbaniak’s Crumb is an understated marvel (his real-life counterpart isn’t present here, but who can forget the movie Crumb?). As the prickly and depressive Brabner, Hope Davis does wonderful, self-effacing work while wearing an unflattering wig and giant eyeglasses. (In an amusing collision of a difficult personality with the actress charged with mimicking her, Davis reportedly had Brabner barred from the set.)
However, Paul Giamatti suffers somewhat in comparison to the real Pekar. His incessant dyspepsia is pretty amusing for the first hour, but after the film moves into the 1980s–when Pekar begins to taste success–more notes are needed. And those notes are provided by the real Pekar, who radiates a cocksure, bumptious sexuality that Giamatti just can’t match. There’s also a slightly vulgar, Barnum-esque quality to the real Pekar, who none-too-subtly craves riches and literary celebrity. Giamatti’s performance, in contrast, is often little more than a sustained gas attack. (Curiously, the film’s makeup department makes little effort to vary Giamatti’s appearance over the thirty years covered in the film.)
As good as American Splendor is for much of its running time, it does veer into wearisome sentimentality toward the end when Pekar is diagnosed with testicular cancer, an experience that Brabner and Pekar would document in their award-winning book, Our Cancer Year. More or less simultaneously with this narrative of suffering and triumph, Joyce realizes her wish to have a child. It’s a bit much by the end, even if Pekar croaks at us that we shouldn’t mistake it for a conventional Hollywood happy ending.
Still, after a summer in which the best movies in the theaters were documentaries, this hybrid of fact and fiction is one of the best American films of the year and it’s also an auspicious gateway into autumn, when the movies are always better.