American Splendor Review

The true story of Harvey Pekar, a working class slob from Cleveland who turned his dreary existence into a popular comic book. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis star. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Harvey Pekar was a nobody. A miserable, slobbish, twice-divorced filing clerk who lived by himself in a shabby apartment in Cleveland, he was the antithesis of the American Dream. He had no ambition to be famous or successful, nor did he have any great artistic talent, yet he did have a unique view of the world, an artist’s honesty and a need to leave his mark. Through a mutual love of jazz records and comic books, Pekar had befriended fellow Cleveland resident Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), whose underground comic books became a part of the sixties counterculture. Though Crumb had long since moved to San Fransisco, they’d stayed in touch and on one of his visits home, in the mid 1970s, Pekar pitched him an idea for a comic book about his own life. Thus was born American Splendor, the chronicles of the mundane existence of a filing clerk, its content drawn from Pekar’s genuine experiences.

The comic was well received and a modest success, though Pekar’s royalties were never enough that he could quit his job. It did introduce him to the love of his life – Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a neurotic political activist and comics fan who called him up one day, looking for a missing issue, then met him, married him and moved in with him, all on the same weekend. The comic also brought Harvey a small measure of fame. American Splendor was adapted into a play and for a while in the 1980s, Pekar was a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman. He didn’t enjoy the attention and felt he’d become a sell-out. Then his life took a darker turn when he was diagnosed with cancer.

American Splendor tells Pekar’s story in an fresh, inventive style that blends straightforward, scripted scenes starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar with frames from the comics and interview footage with Harvey himself (who also serves as narrator) and other real people from his life, including Joyce and his fellow filing clerks. If it sounds artsy, it doesn’t play that way. The interviews enhance the film rather than interrupt it. Quizzed by co-director Shari Springer Berman, the subjects fill in details, explain their behaviour in certain scenes and even speculate on how the completed film will turn out. The commentary on the American Splendor DVD may end up being a bit redundant.

Paul Giamatti is perfect casting as Pekar. He’s nailed the character so well that there’s hardly any jarring when the film cuts back and forth between him and the real thing. Hope Davis, who played Jack Nicholson’s daughter in About Schmidt, is also excellent. The actors playing Pekar’s workmates also make a strong impression, especially Earl Billings as Mr Boats and Judah Friedlander as the impossibly nerdy Toby. His reaction to seeing Revenge Of The Nerds provides some of the funniest moments, all the more so if you’re familiar with it. On the negative side (and maybe it’s a minor point but it annoyed me), I thought the movie was unfair to David Letterman, who’s portrayed as a cackling bully who makes wisecracks at poor Harvey’s expense. Well, yes, Letterman makes fun of his guests – he’s more a comedian than a chat-show host and that’s his style. Ask Madonna. By volunteering to appear on his show and then objecting to being ridiculed, Pekar comes across as just another thin-skinned celebrity who wanted the publicity but couldn’t take a joke.

At least he admits he only did it to sell his comic. Honesty is one virtue Pekar has in abundance and he’s honest about what he is – a grouchy everyman who goes through life perpetually unimpressed with himself and the world around him. Whether or not you’d want him as a neighbour, he’s uncompromising in his negativity and American Splendor finds him heroic in his own way. Like Ed Wood, Man On The Moon and Private Parts, it stands as a tribute to a uniquely American oddball.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Jan 13, 2004

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