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American Splendor By Matt Singer
“American Splendor” is an excellent comic book, and American Splendor is an amazing movie. If you’re not familiar with the source material, Cleveland schlub and file clerk Harvey Pekar writes an anthology book about the complexities of his everyday life. The film adapts the comic, and therefore Harvey’s life, into a two hour journey that, like the comic, like life, is sometimes funny, and sometimes sad, but always, always, real. Though it is not a documentary, it may very well be, and for whatever liberties it might have taken (and I don’t know of many) it creates these people for you.
Pekar plays himself, popping up throughout as a narrator, and even occasionally as an on-screen commentator, discussing the action we’ve seen. In the fictionalized scenes, Harvey (it seems so much more natural to call him Harvey - everyone in his comic book calls him that) is played by Paul Giamatti, previously best known for his small but unforgettable roles in films like Private Parts and The Negotiator. Giamatti’s gives an uncanny performance, while he is a dead ringer for Harvey’s mannerisms, voice, and trademark head-tilt and stoop, he never seems to be impersonating his subject; rather, it’s almost like Harvey had an out-of-body experience inside poor Paul Giamatti. The performers who assume the identities of Harvey’s third wife Joyce (Hope Davis), and buddies Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) and Killer Nerd star Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) are equally impressive.
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Like the John Lennon song, Harvey is a working class hero. We first see him as a child, at the end of a line of Halloween trick or treaters. There’s Superman, Batman, Green Lantern... and Harvey Pekar, dressed as himself. And he really is heroic in his own quiet way; while holding down a dead-end government job for twenty-five years, he created one of the most important independent comic books of all time, found true love, even tackled cancer (One subject the movie doesn’t have time for; Harvey’s immigrant father, whose 7 day a week job working the family market is a big reason for Harvey’s own career path). As a neurotic Jew myself, it’s easy to identify with his fears and his dreams. For someone who has accomplished a lot, he remains eternally pessimistic, though in the film he tends to come off as a lovable curmudgeon more often than not.
First-time film directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini draw on their roots as documentarians to blend the fictional material with interviews with the real Harvey and Joyce. Since “Splendor” is itself self-referential, the movie’s own circular structure plays perfectly into the tone of Harvey’s life and work. But Berman and Pulcini also capture what makes Harvey’s comics so great; the unbelievable attention to detail, to otherwise pointless minutia that can sometimes become absolutely fascinating: in no other movie could something so small as a pencil tip breaking be laugh out loud hilarious. But that’s because no other movie would show such a thing because the movies are idealized worlds where pencils never break and no one goes to the bathroom. Well, Harvey’s a real person, his pencils break, he goes to the bathroom, he has a sagging, flabby body. After so many movies that reach for escape - even plenty of good ones - a film that shows you specific reality from one point of view is like getting a bucket of water in the face while you’re sleeping.
You don’t need to have read “American Splendor” to enjoy the film, nor will knowledge of Harvey’s work spoil it either. You may find, however, that one viewing won’t be enough, and you’ll want to reread the “Splendor” you already own and go out and buy some more. This is art at its best: exciting, daring, genre-bending. This is something splendid. Harvey probably can’t see it, but that’s why we love him.