If Annie Hall was to be remade, American Splendor would model a right way to go about it. Alvy Singer visualized his life through the eyes of a panicking comic. American Splendor is Harvey Pekar’s interpretation of his life at a time when comic books were starting to be taken more seriously (incidentally, Annie Hall did draw a fleeting but memorable inspiration from a contemporary Woody Allen comic strip).
At a gut level, American Splendor is a valentine to comics and our personal connections with them. But Harvey Pekar never wanted to be a golden comic book hero. Since childhood he was confident that he was interesting enough to carry a comic series as a protagonist without superpowers. No one else believed him and to them, Pekar had this to say:
“Romance? Escapism? Save the day? You got the wrong movie.”
It’s not a blow to the film’s originality to say that it isn’t surprising that Harvey Pekar appears in person, narrating his own film. He is, after all, a guy who became famous by retelling his life on the printed page.
American Splendor is a very funny film and a very smart one too. It knows everything it needs to know about itself, its narrator, comic books, life, and that it is a part of the media that it seeks to examine.
Harvey Pekar’s life and art was worth a movie and this one does them justice. If ever there was someone who proved correct Mark Twain’s proclamation that a dull life cannot exist, it was Pekar. He was lucky to have realized this early enough in life. He spent most of his life in Cleveland working as a filing clerk at a local hospital. It’s a humdrum life on paper, but it was precisely through paper that Pekar proved his point that ordinary life can be really complex.
Despite appearing in a line-up of critical thumb-up recipients, Paul Giamatti (not so much playing Harvey Pekar, but rather playing himself as the actor playing Harvey Pekar) doesn’t get enough credit as an actor. None of his performances are more deserving than his embodiment of this eccentric artist. It’s one of the hardest performances an actor could pull off and, yet, Giamatti transitions so smoothly through the stages of Pekar’s life starting in 1962, when he was a young record collector at yard sales to 1975 when his second wife walks out on him. It’s at this time that Pekar was warned by a doctor that he would lose his voice after years of yelling, but it’s hard to imagine more rewarding years. By the late 70s, Pekar was befriending an unforgettable cast of artists, including Robert Crumb, who also warrants his own movie and was granted one by Terry Zwigoff.
Intense emotions often inspire great art and Pekar’s finally saw the light when his repressed anger (coming after divorce and such petty annoyances as standing behind a pushy old lady at the check out line) came to a boil. Out came his illustrated alter ego.
Pekar saw the potential of comics long before even their most ardent fans. He knew that to make them more relatable he had to go off the beaten path and work with the underground movement. A new kind of comic had to be created; one that dealt with the realities of ordinary people.
In a way, his success must have come easy. Look at the people he surrounds himself with, starting with the unforgettable Toby Radloff. How could anyone with such friends not want to share their stories with the world? They are all characters in the best sense of the word and that’s just it. Pekar knew how to find humor in his everyday life.
Moods change in American Splendor and the performances reflect the profundity of the people in Pekar’s world. Pekar softens up his abrasive wit when he runs into an old college classmate at a pastry shop. He likes her, but she is stuck in a marriage that seems to bring her too little joy.
The overwhelming feeling we get from American Splendor is that Harvey Pekar was lonely and needed to create a parallel reality as a substitute for an emotionally non- sustaining life. But it’s all relative. To us, Pekar’s life, while certainly dreary at times, seems anything but ordinary. He meets his eventual wife Joyce (played here by Hope Davis), for instance, after responding to a fan letter from her and inviting her to spend time with him in Cleveland.
Harvey is at his most amusing when interacting with Joyce and her odd little quirks. Maybe that’s what drew them together. “This time I really met my match,” Pekar says. Time proved him correct. Their marriage is perpetually in turmoil and she has a habit of labeling others without examining herself. Harvey continues to be Harvey amidst all of this and domestic squabbles have never been funnier.
At other times, they are surprisingly close. He genuinely misses her when she leaves for Jerusalem to save the Middle East and, later, Harvey owes his victorious recovery from cancer to her.
What’s amazing is how honest the real-life counterparts are in this movie. Even the real Joyce Brabner, while maintaining her drollness, seems to approve of this cinematic endeavor. Kudos, too, for the real Toby Radloff, who is played by Judah Friedlander. Friedlander’s performance is a riot and will never make you think of jelly bellies in the same way.
In its own way, American Splendor is an all American tale of rising to fame. It comes packaged in a world view initially so jarring that it takes time to realize that, at its core, it is a classical success story with all the pits and falls. The difference is that it’s told here with more ingenuity and insight than ever before. This is Citizen Kane by way of Spike Jonze. And, wouldn’t you know, it has several happy endings. Harvey is cured of cancer, he accomplishes the American dream, and despite his vasectomy, Joyce and Harvey manage to create a family.