American Splendor

(2003) *** 1/2 R
100 min. Fine Line Features. Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Bob Pulcini. Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar, James Urbaniak.

When Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man, at long last, to the big screen, he brought with it that character's lower-middle-class roots. Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee, like Raimi, knew that readers might enjoy heroes put on a pedestal, but those same readers would love the intimation that they might be giants themselves, that the humblest of folks had the capacity, at any moment to be great. In the 1970s, an artistic movement led symbolically by Robert Crumb went one step further, slowly remaking comics into the domain not only of fantastical freaks but very human geeks, extraordinary ordinary Joes. Enter Harvey Pekar, the comic writer who, in collusion with Crumb and other artists, forever propped open the door of the comic heroes' locker room for sad sacks, losers, and nerds. In their debut narrative feature, the documentary team of Shari S. Berman and Robert Pulcini deconstruct Harvey, adapting his American Splendor comics and, therefore, his life into a postmodern film whose time has come.

The story begins in the '50s, with Pekar as a trick-or-treating child in no apparent costume. "I ain't no superhero, lady," he spits. "I'm just a kid from the neighborhood." All grown up, Pekar (Paul Giamatti) shambles and slouches down the airless, urban-nightmare streets of Cleveland. Given to querulous groaning and breathy whimpering--in no small part due to a nodule in his vocal cords--the irritable Pekar grumbles, "I'd gladly trade some growth for happiness." Happiness comes unexpectedly to Pekar, first through the inspiration of eccentric acquaintance Crumb (James Urbaniak), then in a neurotic romance with eventual life partner Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis).

Obsessive-compulsive and anal-expulsive, Pekar wails, "My life is total chaos," but taking a page from Crumb, Pekar begins to put his every thought to paper in a graphic diary. Pekar busts up his writer's block in the mst unexpected of places: a grocery store check-out line. Here, Pekar comes into his own as the proverbial devil on Everyman's shoulder, thinking the nasty things we all think. But he's also the angel, empowering himself to transorm his misery into cathartic art. Hunched over his paunch, Pekar begins to scribble his stick-figure panels. Giamatti makes a meal of Pekar, taking on twitching and scratching, lazy gestures and testy glares. He's a tough nut to crack, even for himself.

When Brabner comes on the scene, Pekar meets his match. As tough as Pekar and almost as eccentric, Brabner picks up from her comic shop in Delaware and hightails it to Ohio when Pekar answers her fan letter. Their oddball romance, beginning with Pekar's ejaculation "You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy," unfolds beguilingly, in a way that defies printed description (witness Brabner's descision to marry Pekar after accidentally spritzing WD-40 in his bathroom). Like Brabner to Pekar, a stunningly dressed-down Davis proves every inch Giamatti's equal in etching the loneliness of irritability and the dawning realization that it is best shared.

Even in success, Pekar finds, ambivalence rolls in like a fog. When misery is your bread and butter, success threatens to be failure. Pekar's ostensible peak of success is a run of appearances in the hot seat of Late Night with David Letterman. When Pekar tires of being Letterman's clown, he unleashes an on-air tirade against the host and NBC owner General Electric; though it marked the temporary end of Pekar's mainstream penetration, the rant prefigured Letterman's own attacks on corporate parents in the years to follow. The sequence, though it contributes to the biopic's somewhat awkward episodic nature, accurately portrays the tenuous balance of being credibly underground and suddenly famous.

Beginning with narration by the actual Pekar, Berman and Pulcini employ a wide variety of techniques to integrate Pekar's story. Eventually, Pekar, Brabner, and Pekar's self-professed nerd buddy Toby Radloff turn up in interspersed, apparently candid interview segments, and the filmmakers also whip up a virtuoso sequence blending existential monologue, photography, and animation to get inside Pekar's head. In doing so, Berman and Pulcini get the best of both worlds: an objective accounting of Pekar's life and a taste of reality which, in most respects, backs up their artistic choices. The proof is in their pudding: at first, Judah Friedlander's performance as Radloff seemed impossibly over-the-top, but then the filmmakers trot out the real Toby and shut me right up. Pekar espouses a no-bullshit philosophy and, despite some necessary license, the filmmakers stay essentially true to his life and oeuvre.

This seemingly cynical human comedy rigorously hides its secret sentiment, but it pleasingly creeps out of the margins all the same in its depiction of cracked but comforting familial bonding. Art has room for untethered flights of fancy, but also for the small-scale self-portraiture of Pekar and Brabner (who publicly aired their personal health scare, among other episodes) and the experimental docudrama of Berman and Pulcini. It's a superior character study (with two of the year's best performances) and a blueprint for alternative art in a Disney-fied world.

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