American Splendor is likely the most lively and entertaining film to open in Memphis all year. It's a biopic of sorts about Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland-based record collector, part-time jazz critic, full-time misanthrope, celebrated comic-book author who can't draw a lick, regular Late Night with David Letterman guest, and, for 30 years until his recent retirement, file clerk at a local V.A. hospital.
American Splendor is also the title of Pekar's comic, a proto-graphic novel that asserts that a regular guy working a "shit job" and living in a "shit neighborhood" is as much a superhero as any fictional creation who wears tights. It asserts that the stuff of this life -- record shopping, riding the bus, dealing with co-workers, doing the dishes, loneliness, frustration, etc. -- can be fodder for comics, because, as Pekar (played here by brilliant character-actor Paul Giamatti) says, "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."
The film is something of an unintentional companion piece to Ghost World. Both films are based on graphic novels, both cite underground artist R. Crumb as a spiritual godfather -- Ghost World off-screen, American Splendor on. (Pekar befriends Crumb early on, and Crumb ends up drawing Pekar's first comic.) And Giamatti's Pekar is essentially a more aggressively grumpy and more caustic version of Steve Buscemi's Seymour in Ghost World.
But the comparison exposes some of American Splendor's limitations. Both films portray a similar strain of social and cultural alienation, but where American Splendor rarely strays beyond its protagonist's prickly worldview and pricklier personality, Ghost World takes that as a mere starting point, a launch pad for a film that probably says more about modern American life than any other in recent memory.
American Splendor is more constricted than this; it has less on the brain beyond its narrative. But it burrows so far into its story that it triumphs in a different way, especially as a startling, virtuoso marriage of form and content.
What may be most compelling about American Splendor is that it isn't exactly an adaptation of Pekar's comic and it isn't exactly a biopic. Rather, it's a film about that comic, a tribute to it -- to its content, its form, and its creation -- in much the same way that Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy was about Gilbert and Sullivan musicals rather than just about Gilbert and Sullivan.
American Splendor -- directed magnificently by the heretofore unknown team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini --is audacious in managing different levels of representation and different types of visual content. If American Splendor the series is Pekar's life turned into a comic, the film conveys this transition almost literally, as when an aha! moment at a supermarket -- Pekar looking at a long line at one register manned by well-behaving customers and another containing only an argumentative old lady and realizing that these kinds of life-decisions require true superpowers --mutates into a drawn comic panel.
The film shifts effortlessly between live action and drawn comic recreations, but even that isn't the only formal complication it negotiates: When Pekar arranges a meeting with pen pal and American Splendor fan (and future wife) Joyce (Hope Davis), his romantic interest expresses some trepidation because she doesn't know which Pekar to expect --because the comic hero changes, in appearance and tone, based on which artist is drawing him.
American Splendor takes this notion and runs with it, giving us many different Harveys -- not just the different comic-book creations or an actor playing "Harvey" in an off-off-off-Broadway theatrical adaption of the comic that Harvey and Joyce go to see, but the actual Harvey Pekar, who not only provides voiceovers but makes frequent appearances, providing commentary and answering interview questions from a whimsically presented space that exists outside the film's "fictional" world. And Pekar isn't the only real-life figure who shows up in this space. Joyce also makes an appearance, as does Pekar co-worker and self-described "real-life nerd" Toby Radloff (whose character's marathon trips to see Revenge of the Nerds provide a subplot far funnier than it has any right to be).
The presence of the real Harvey, Joyce, and Toby helps to humanize the film, but it also underscores just how perfect the acting is. Giamatti is wondrous, his agitated, hang-dog performance spot-on but far from the one-trick-pony it might have been because he finds all the nuance and pathos in Pekar's moments of vulnerability: a touchingly comic early scene in which Pekar, rapidly losing his voice, returns from a doctor's appointment to find his wife leaving him and wheezes, barely audible, "Don't go. Please don't go"; or a moment later when Pekar confesses that, since he's been single, "Sometimes I feel a body next to me, like an amputee feels a phantom limb."
While Giamatti is in some ways spinning a variation on a personality he's played before, Davis is chameleonic. Coming off her very different performance in The Secret Lives of Dentists (not to mention About Schmidt, where she stole the movie out from under Jack Nicholson), her pitch-perfect Joyce might make her the actress of the year.
As a tribute to the work of a borderline-obscure artist that is not only made with the input of that artist but that also puts him on the screen, you might fear that American Splendor is a little self-aggrandizing, and there is that danger: The film clearly indulges Pekar's irascible whininess, turning him into a lovable, heroic figure (which he may well be), when he could just as easily be seen as a sour crank. But it's critical of him --or allows criticism --in ways you may not expect.
When Pekar ends a stream of Letterman appearances that he claims are a charade and chafes at media attention given to Toby (who appears on MTV promos as a "nerd"), the film endorses his faux-populist view of "the corporations" taking advantage of "little guys." But a scene with the real-life Pekar and Joyce hints that Pekar may not be as committed to telling it like it is as he wants to appear. Joyce complains that Pekar leaves the beauty out of his comics because he thinks that "doom and gloom sells," implying that Pekar's miserable existentialist persona is cultivated --not that that's a great shock or outrage. The film also hints that the relentless self-documentation at the heart of Pekar's comic enterprise may be more than a little narcissistic. (His foster daughter expresses an interest in making her own comics but tells Pekar that he won't be in them: "You've got enough.")
American Splendor wraps up in a predictably heartwarming way --a bout of cancer overcome (and documented by Pekar and Joyce in the comic series Our Cancer Year) and a real-life retirement party visited. But Pekar won't let things end quite so gently. "We fight," he says. "Joyce barely works. The kid has ADD and is a handful. Life is chaos." And pretty complex stuff. -- Chris Herrington