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'American Splendor'

Life of a crank explored in fine 'Splendor'

Friday, September 12, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Who is Harvey Pekar and why have directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made one of the best movies of the year about him, "American Splendor"?

 
 

'American Splendor'

RATING: R for language.

STARRING: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, James Urbaniak.

DIRECTORS: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

   
 

There are many answers to the first question both in the film and in real life. Those, in turn, explain everything else.

You may remember Pekar from his guest appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" in the 1980s, where he came off as a blue-collar crank whom Letterman played for laughs -- until Pekar showed up one night and started bashing the host, his show, his network (NBC at the time) and its corporate owner (General Electric).

You may be a fan of the comic-book series, also called "American Splendor," that employs Pekar's life as inspiration. A hospital file clerk in Cleveland, Pekar uses his everyday experiences, his working man's outlook, his pessimistic view of life and even his friends as grist for the literary mill. He writes the stories and many of the foremost underground cartoonists, including his longtime pal Robert Crumb (portrayed in the film by James Urbaniak), draw the panels.

Each artist renders him a bit differently, resulting in multiple Pekars. The movie carries that conceit to its logical extreme.

We start with a bravura performance by actor Paul Giamatti as Pekar, with flyaway hair, eyes locked in an angry stare of perpetual disbelief at his misfortunes and lips curled into a sneer, frozen halfway into a plea for help that never emerges in time. Oh, and when he's really stressed his voice contracts into a high-pitched rasp.

If that sounds familiar, it's because the real Harvey Pekar is narrating the movie. He shows up on screen, too. Sometimes, the film cuts away from the narrative and films the set with a cartoon backdrop, and Giamatti watches in the background as Pekar talks about himself. Or Harvey is rendered into a cartoon, the various line-drawing versions of him coming to animated life. Or we see Giamatti backstage at "Late Night" but the actual clips of Pekar with Letterman (except for the final blowup, which is re-created -- cooperation only goes so far).

Or we see the real Pekar at his real retirement party with his real co-workers, including self-described nerd (and proud of it) Toby Radloff, whose own brief encounter with fame involved allowing MTV to make fun of him. When Radloff isn't appearing as himself, actor Judah Friedlander takes over.

Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, also makes an appearance, basically confirming or even adding details to episodes of their private life that have made it into the comic book. Mostly, though, she is portrayed by actress Hope Davis, who utterly disappears into the character with her long black hair and eyeglasses.

Berman and Pulcini, who also wrote the movie, include plenty of humor but never make fun of Pekar the way Letterman does -- or, at least, no more than Pekar does of himself. But they also capture the poignance of his life, the degree of his misfortune, the grayness of his environment -- the movie was shot in Cleveland's industrial neighborhoods, and if you think the sun doesn't shine enough in Pittsburgh, go spend some time along the winding (but no longer fiery) Cuyahoga.

So what are we to make of the movie's multiple Harvey Pekars -- and of the man who inspired them all?

One could argue that they render him disposable, but that argument doesn't wash because the real Harvey is always around in the film. I suspect the different comic-book versions of him allow him to escape grim reality even as they replicate it. If art offers a heightened view of life, then "American Splendor" in its various forms -- comic book and movie and comic book about making the movie -- highlights the worth of even such a humdrum existence as Harvey Pekar's.

But the real point may be that his life isn't humdrum -- and that none of our lives is. We may not be rich or famous or good-looking or socially adept. But momentous things happen to all of us. We fall in love, we get sick, we persevere at our jobs, we deal with unexpected blows, we struggle to survive as long as we can. And, as Harvey and Joyce find out, once in a while the surprises turn out to be a blessing -- even some that start as a curse.

Ironic as the title may be, "American Splendor" is just that.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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