Pekar Experience

Comic Figures: Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti in American Splendor.Photo: John Clifford/Fine Line Features

When we first see Harvey Pekar, as a trick-or-treating kid in Cleveland, he can’t understand why the other boys need to dress up as superheroes, why they can’t just be themselves. He grows up to become a chronically morose file clerk at a VA hospital. Pekar hates make-believe because it denies the sad ordinariness of life, or at least of his life. He loves comic books but wonders why they’re always aimed at kids. Why not a comic book for grown-ups? And so, in 1976, he creates one—the long-running biographical serial American Splendor—which chronicles his own momentously drab and disreputable experiences. He becomes a superhero after all—he makes art out of his funk.

Written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor is every bit as original as its real-life protagonist. Pekar is played as an adult by the peerlessly schlumpy Paul Giamatti, but the filmmakers also feature interviews with the real-life Pekar, who serves as the movie’s raspy-voiced narrator; they periodically intersperse animated sketches of Pekar as he has been rendered by his various collaborators over the years, including, most famously, Pekar’s friend Robert Crumb. We are left with a vertiginous array of Harveys.

Giamatti’s Harvey incorporates the moods and body language of them all. It’s a prodigious piece of acting. By turns sodden and valiant and heartfelt, he’s never quite what you expect. Berman and Pulcini take their cue from Pekar’s obsession with jazz and create a man who is constantly bopping in and out of guises. It would have been easy to play him as a self-pitying whiner, but even at his most bummed out, this Pekar has an ornery core. He doesn’t want to be seen as a working-class Everyman. When, in the eighties, David Letterman brings him on his show and calls him the “embodiment of the American Dream,” the compliment sticks in his craw because he’s smart enough to realize he’s being patronized. He’s also honest enough to admit that being on the show makes him feel like a “sellout hack.” What keeps Pekar’s funk from becoming a running joke is the depth of feeling behind it. His underground comic books are almost unbearably poignant, and much of the film is, too.

“Probably more of us than would care to admit it see ourselves as a pastiche of comic-book hero, suffering martyr, and zhlub.”

But playfully so. The combination of the dramatic, the documentary, and the animated in American Splendor mimics the ins and outs of Pekar’s peekaboo world. There’s something revivifying about a movie—especially one ostensibly about a depressive—that draws so much vitality from chaos. Berman and Pulcini embrace the postmodern notion that pop culture has fragmented our sense of self. The reason Pekar’s life is so comprehensible to us is that we are wriggling through the same cultural continuum. Probably more of us than would care to admit it see ourselves as a pastiche of comic-book hero and suffering martyr and zhlub. The real and the reenacted Harvey are all of a piece with the animated Harvey: They complete each other.

The constant in Pekar’s life is not his resignation but his fighting spirit. He’s desperately lonely and, as he admits, horny as hell; twice-divorced, he makes a go of it with a fan, Joyce Brabner (the superlative Hope Davis), who is more than his match. (The real Joyce also makes an appearance.) Their courtship has an edge: A lefty activist, Joyce has a low regard for showbiz. (Watching Pekar on Letterman, she switches the channel to news about Iran-contra.) With her bangs and big, oval glasses, Joyce may look like a superannuated flower child, but she possesses a cast-iron will and the desire to live a more comfortable, less pack-ratty life. Miraculously, she builds a family with Pekar, and they adopt a daughter. Although Pekar might not admit it, the bourgeois comforts of home are a curative for him. When he receives a dire medical diagnosis, Joyce refuses to feed his fear. She gets him to put it all down in his newest comic book. When Pekar says that “life seems so sweet and so hard, and so hard to give up in the end,” he is speaking with the authenticity of a man who has really been through something. Pekar is not meant to be a “little guy” whom we can all rally around. He is as self-serving and ambitious, in his way, as any other artist who wants to be remembered, and his heroes are such big guys as Ornette Coleman and Theodore Dreiser. His happiness, in the end, is equivocal and hard-won—a work in progress. It would be a mistake to regard American Splendor as an anthem for the common man. It is the uncommon that is being celebrated here.

In the reasonably efficient summer-movie blowout S.W.A.T., the LAPD tactical unit’s members have names like Hondo Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson), Jim Street (Colin Farrell), and Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner). More imagination went into the names than into the script. Actually, there is one novel plot development: When a drug lord (Olivier Martinez) offers a $100 million bounty to anyone who will spring him from police custody, every gangbanger and yahoo in Los Angeles comes out of the woodwork. It’s a great premise for a comedy, though the filmmakers fail to see the humor. Instead, they shoot up the streets of Hollywood, Wild West–style. This has been happening a lot lately, most recently in The Italian Job and Hollywood Homicide. And now that L.A. has a subway system, we’re seeing more movie mayhem down there, too. There is something sneakily gratifying about all this: Not since the days of Earthquake have Hollywood producers so indulged their fantasies of trashing the town.

The surfing footage in Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid inspires the requisite shock and awe, but a little goes a long way. About the fifth time I saw someone slip-sliding away from a 60-foot wave, I longed to hear someone on the soundtrack say, “That guy is really nuts.” But Brown, who is the son of Bruce (The Endless Summer) Brown, is clearly a true believer. The most contentious moment in the film comes when a stoked dude bemoans what Fast Times at Ridgemont High did to the surfer image. Sean Penn just can’t get a break these days.

Pekar Experience