What a sad, tender, wise and beautiful film co-director/co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made from Harvey Pekar’s life and his “American Splendor” comics. Like Terry Zwigoff’s equally superb “Ghost World,” this is a film about the kind of people most movies never bother about: the lonely, untrendy and frequently rage-filled masses. It’s a profound tribute to lives lived on the fringes of society –to the introspective loners who are the most observant chroniclers of our times. Produced by HBO Films, but being shopped to theatrical distribs, pic deserves a bigscreen berth, where it will enjoy strong critical support and the embrace of a loyal cult audience.
“American Splendor” represents a bold deconstruction of the fatigued biopic form. Not content to present the Cleveland-based Pekar’s life as anything resembling a straightforward narrative, Berman and Pulcini — who have previously made only documentaries — wildly jiggle around the raw materials of their film until they’re left with a freewheeling phantasmagoria of dramatic scenes, documentary interviews (with the real Pekar) and crazily inspired animated bits drawn by the likes of R. Crumb and Joe Zabel. The result is a vibrant, untamed film that stubbornly refuses to fit into any prefigured category.
“American Splendor” begins in 1950 but freely jumps back and forth in time, allowing particular events to trigger memories — the way Pekar himself might tell us his story over a burger at some roadside diner. (Indeed, the raspy-voiced Pekar narrates the film.) We see Pekar working his dead-end job as a file clerk in a VA hospital, having his fateful garage-sale meeting with Crumb (played by James Urbaniak in a magnificent bit of mimicry) and ultimately making his first efforts at comic-writing. In these scenes, Pekar is portrayed by the chameleonic character actor Paul Giamatti, who shifts, squints and squirms his way brilliantly through the performance — a major breakthrough for an actor who has previously been so very good in so many forgettable films (“Duets,” “Planet of the Apes”). By pic’s end, Giamatti and Pekar are used interchangeably in a few scenes, and by that point, one has become indistinguishable from the other.
In strikingly unsentimental terms, Pulcini and Berman chart Pekar’s tumultuous life and yearlong battle with cancer. But above all, the film is a bittersweet and delicately rendered love story about the ramshackle, picture-imperfect family Pekar assembles after years of loneliness and failed marriages — comprising wife Joyce (an unrecognizable and thoroughly wonderful Hope Davis) and foster daughter Danielle (Madilyn Sweeten) — and how his comics inadvertently lead him to it.
In Pekar’s own words, “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” and his comics are filled with sly observations about ugly, commonplace disappointments. Likewise, the movie is so keyed to this sensibility that it seems to be trudging forward with its head bowed against an oncoming wind. It’s a fundamentally surrealist piece, one that eschews objectifying Pekar’s life in favor of a full immersion into his slightly exaggerated worldview, so that we may better understand how Pekar was able to take life’s lemons and transform them into lemon-art. Thus freed, American Splendor” becomes a celebration — an advocacy, even — of finding the “art” in one’s own life.
Gifted cinematographer Terry Stacey (“Wendigo”) shoots in tight closeups and two-shots at dynamic angles, evoking the graphic intensity of the comicbook form, while Therese DePrez’s vintage production designs and Michael Wilkinson’s gloriously secondhand costumes work in sublime tandem to evoke the industrial-chic Cleveland landscape in all its earth-toned glory. Pic’s orchestration delivers nary a false note.
Late in the film, Pekar recounts the conundrum of once discoveringhe was not the only Harvey Pekar in the Cleveland phone book: “What’s in a name?” he laments; “Who is Harvey Pekar?” “American Splendor” (the comic and the movie) is the answer to that question. And getting to know Harvey Pekar in all his paranoia and anger and bad hygiene is a distinct pleasure.