Ever see those dopey commercials, usually aired during sportscasts on TV, which try to portray everyday people as sports stars? A sales clerk will be helping out a customer, for instance, while an announcer gushes about the clerk’s skills and “statistics” about the clerk flash up on screen. Well, everyday life just ain’t all that glamorous. That’s not to say, however, that ordinary life doesn’t provide fertile ground for satire, pathos and bittersweet humor. Harvey Pekar gradually discovered this truism through the daily grind of his life as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital. Fueled by his early years spent listening to music, collecting comics and doing lots and lots of reading, and inspired by his infamous friend Robert Crumb’s success as an underground comic book creator, Harvey writes a comic book of his own. Illustrated by Crumb at first and later on by an assortment of artists, “American Splendor” takes off in spite of, or maybe because of, its emphasis on the angst and annoyances of everyday life.
Despite his comic’s growing success however, Harvey scarcely manages to slog through life and has to keep his day job at the hospital to make ends meet. Even after his marriage to one-time groupie Joyce Brabner, his growing cult acclaim, and numerous appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” Harvey’s life remains more a thicket of thorns than a bed of roses. Yet somehow, Harvey Pekar and his “American Splendor” persevere.
“American Splendor” the movie is one of the most wildly original, dryly comical, and smartly structured films ever created. Harvey’s life may be as exciting and pleasant as a toothache, but it’s been interesting enough to spawn the comic book, an off-Broadway play based on that comic book, and now this groundbreaking biopic.
Harvey appears as himself in several documentary-like interviews scattered throughout the film. Here, he serves as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, providing an authentic perspective on the recreated events. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti practically out-Harveys Harvey in the film’s dramatic recreations of events in our hero’s life, while Hope Davis provides a terrific turn as Joyce. There’s even a hilarious third layer, which recreates The Independent Eye’s original theatrical production of “American Splendor.” That’s a lotta Harveys and not too bad for a file clerk.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have crafted a brilliantly bittersweet, multi-layered and absolutely unforgettable portrayal of this virtually unknown blue-collar celebrity. Filled with sassy and well-timed animation sequences and a structure that deliberately fudges the line between the real Harvey Pekar and Giamatti’s on-screen portrayal, this brassy film thrusts the nearly forgotten underground comic and art scene squarely back into the public consciousness.
Even if you’ve never heard of “American Splendor,” even if the name Robert Crumb means nothing to you, go see “American Splendor.” And strap yourself in for a caustic but comical counter-cultural history lesson. A totally unique film, “American Splendor” is simply splendid.