As Harvey Pekar is considered more than just a normal writer to hardcore comic book fans, American Splendor will hold the same unique bond with passionate film fans. Never before has cinema so daringly shifted tones and genres, flowing seamlessly from narrative to documentary filmmaking and back again.
American Splendor was the name of an underground comic book written by a grubby Cleveland file clerk – enter Harvey Pekar. In a time when underground comics were flourishing, Pekar lured famous cult artists like Robert Crumb to illustrate his ideas, since, as Pekar humbly mumbles in the picture he can’t even draw a straight line.
For such an everyman-as-downtrodden intellectual, Pekar receives quite a fair share of variations and attention from the ambitious filmmakers. For the most part, he is played by the severely underrated Paul Giamatti (Storytelling, Private Parts) a brilliant actor who, until now, has always landed small, albeit juicy, supporting roles. The real Pekar narrates the film in his trademark raspy whistle of a voice, and appears on camera several times, when the film breaks for documentary-style interviews.
It’s impossible to remember a film structured similarly to American Splendor – there quite possibly are none. Giamatti goes from playing Pekar in the 1970s, to Pekar sitting on a soundstage in modern day, talking about his role in the movie. In one incredible set scene, Giamatti and the actor who plays Pekar’s n-e-r-d pal, Toby, finish a take and sit in the background while the real Toby and Pekar have a conversation in the foreground.
Aside from this aforementioned breakthrough mixture of documentary and narrative, American Splendor subtly dazzles with its candid, humane substance. When Pekar does interviews, he sits on a fairly empty set, surrounded by curved walls lit white as if they go on forever, like a blank page waiting to be filled in. Within the narrative it’s not uncommon for comic book-esque pencil lines to pop up on screen, and for thought bubbles to appear over characters’ heads.
Without a doubt the funniest scene, Pekar pushes a cart around a grocery store, trying to pick a checkout line as if the task demands a gambler’s instinct. He goes with the shorter one, a risky decision from the start, due to the old Jewish lady in front of him. She demands price checks and coupons, as he turns reddish, holding in a barely restrained fit. Crumb’s crass drawings of him appear everywhere, like a devil with a twin amigo instead of a debating angel.
Another realization about American Splendor is how easily it switches from drama to comedy. Almost the entire film takes place in the crummy neighborhoods of Cleveland, and the two primary locations – Pekar’s vinyl-towered apartment and the hospital where he works – are equally dim and depressing. Still, despite Pekar’s dreary life and sluggish persona, he’s an entertaining character study packing plenty of “Oddville” laughs.
Back in reality we learn that Pekar has found moderate, actually, substantial success for a cult icon, by faithfully appearing as the fat, balding antithesis of carp