Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar
Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner
James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb
Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff
Madylin Sweeten as Danielle
Joyce Brabner as Real Joyce
Harvey Pekar as Real Harvey
Danielle Batone as Real Danielle
Toby Radloff as Real Toby
Donal Logue as Stage Actor Harvey
Molly Shannon as Stage Actor Joyce
Robert Pulcini as Bob The Director
Shari Springer Berman as Interviewer
Daniel Tay as Young Harvey
Maggie Moore as Alice Quinn
Robert J. Williams as Cancer Doctor
Larry John Meyers as Throat Doctor
Vivienne Benesch as Lana
Earl Billings as Mr. Boats
Danny Hoch as Marty
Mike Rad as Rand
Jesse Perez as Miguel
2003 has been a banner year for big screen comic book adaptations from Daredevil to X2 to The Hulk, yet none of them have truly captured the nature of the comic book storytelling on which they’re based than American Splendor.
Long before Jerry Seinfeld was doing a show about “nothing”, Harvey Pekar, a record collector and a file clerk at a veterans’ hospital in Cleveland, was documenting every minute detail of his humdrum life in a comic book called “American Splendor”. His honest writing never glossed over the truth or tried to paint a prettier picture as it kicked off a new genre of autobiographical comic. Way ahead of their time, they could be likened to reality television in its earliest incarnation. “American Splendor” remained fairly obscure until the 80s’ when Harvey became a regular foil of David Letterman, appearing on the show until an on-air meltdown severed the relationship. In the interim, his comic book work helps him to meet his neurotic wife, Joyce Brabner, who is a fan of his comic, and for them to find their adopted daughter, Danielle.
Although Pekar’s comic books were never as exciting as the more popular superhero comics of the time, his stories make a better movie than one might expect. As a working class everyman, Pekar is a fascinating central character, a bitter pessimist unafraid to discuss the most mundane aspects of his “complex” life.
Adapted for the screen by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor acts as part documentary and part biodrama, bringing to life situations taken directly from the comic book using a similar panel border format as Ang Lee used in The Hulk. It is used to much better effect here, as the camera tends to breaks the fourth wall, cutting between panels from the comic book to Paul Giamatti’s portrayal to scenes with the real Pekar narrating the movie with his usual dry humor and raspy voice. The transitions are so seamless that when Giamatti leaves the backstage at the Letterman show and the movie cuts to actual television footage with the real Pekar, it takes a few seconds to realize the change.
Paul Giamatti’s performance as the unglamorous curmudgeon is what makes this movie truly special. He captures Pekar perfectly, down to the ever-present scowl and his pessimistic world-view, creating an amalgam of Pekar based on the way he has been illustrated by different artists over the years. Giamatti’s vivid recreation is even more amazing because it stands up to the film’s non-linear format, jumping back and forth over the course of almost forty years.
The turbulent relationship between Harvey and his third wife and frequent collaborator Joyce Brabner, played by Hope Davis, is the central crux of the movie, as it develops from pen pal correspondence to one of the worst first dates ever. Needless to say, the two are perfect for each other, and Joyce’s own neuroses and ability to pinpoint social disorders in others becomes a counterbalance to Harvey’s negativity. They are married a week after their first date, and their comic collaboration leads them to Danielle, the daughter of a comic artist who they adopt once they realize that she is the perfect daughter for their dysfunctional family.
An equally pivotal moment in the movie comes when Pekar meets acclaimed underground artist R. Crumb, who offers to illustrate his first comic book stories. The scenes between Pekar and James Urbaniak’s Crumb make for a fun “crossover” with Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, Crumb. The movie’s funniest moments belong to Harvey’s co-worker Toby, a consummate nerd, who creates instant comic relief with his very deliberate speech pattern. His infatuation with the 80s’ film “Revenge of the Nerds” also makes great fodder for Harvey’s wrath.
Some may wonder how many people will know who Harvey Pekar is before seeing American Splendor and whether or not they would enjoy a movie about an admittedly grouchy, and often unlikable, loser. That said, it’s hard not to find at least a few parts of yourself in Harvey’s temperamental character, much his comic fans have done for years. Although American Splendor hits a bit of a downer in the third act when Pekar is diagnosed and treated for cancer, it is an entertaining movie that should be enjoyed by everyone.
While American Splendor is one of the funniest and quirkiest movies of the year, it’s also an inspirational story that even a grouch like Harvey should appreciate. It might even do more to legitimize the comic book medium than all of the superhero movies combined, because the subject matter is more universal, showing that comics aren’t just for the young or uneducated. More importantly, it will help get Pekar and his work recognized by a larger audience and a newgeneration. From Harvey’s griping, he probably could use the money, but don’t expect him to appreciate the recognition that comes along with that fame.
American Splendor is playing now in select cities, and it will open in more cities over the course of August and September.