The Kid Stays in the Comic

Their movie year: Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in 'American Splendor'
Fine Line Features

Even in his childhood, Harvey Pekar was a grumpy old man--or so he would like you to think. Pekar, via his long-running autobiographical comic American Splendor, portrays himself as a philosopher-crank: terminally misled, misunderstood, and misanthropic--and more "real" in his lonely complaint than most of us could ever hope to be. So it's a free-falling moment when, near their film's start, co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini cut away from a Splendor dramatization to show Pekar recording voice-over into a mic: kvetching from a script. A script he didn't write. "Do you mind reading that?" Berman asks off-camera. "No," Pekar avers, hoarsely amiable.

Like last year's bio-doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Splendor is giddy with tricks. The movie jumps in and out of comic book art, interviews with Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, video footage of Pekar and his friends/subjects, dramatizations with actors including Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis (who play Pekar and Brabner), even dramatizations of the dramatization, with other actors playing Giamatti and Davis. This inventive collage enthralls for a while, especially given Giamatti and Davis's striking work. (Giamatti in particular is perfectly, achingly ridiculous.) But midway through I started wondering whether the techniques are as provocative as they want to be.

Berman and Pulcini focus first on Pekar's young adulthood in early '70s Cleveland, working "shit jobs" and living in "shit neighborhoods." Quick scenes with a disdainful soon-to-be-ex-wife and an admiring former college classmate establish that Pekar's antisocial behavior arises more from fear of failure than from some countercultural philosophy. Giamatti pulls his head into his shoulders as if his character is a wary turtle, convinced that only "shit" will come his way.

The movie picks up momentum as Pekar enters the world of comics via his friendship with Robert Crumb (although the meeting of the two malcontents cries out for crueler awkwardness). Pekar tries, haplessly, to draw, but his genius is the small story of daily happenstance--and Crumb's illustrations help him make the leap into publication. He's moving from passive onlooker in his own life to creator/witness, and he's energized: This is not "shit." Alas, the film doesn't ask how relative success alters the grumbling of a "nobody"; it doesn't much poke its head above the narrative.

The various Pekars deny that life has changed: The man still works as a filing clerk at a veterans' hospital; he still lives in a debris-strewn apartment. But his co-workers learn that they're comic book characters (which makes performers of them--not that the film explores that, either). And fan Joyce Brabner (Davis) initiates a postal relationship with Pekar that ripens rather inexplicably. Davis makes of Brabner a duck as odd as Pekar: volatile where he's constant; elegantly graceless; confident and cutting, but even more insecure. The repartee between the fictional Joyce and Harvey can be winningly off-kilter. Yet it's at this point that I began thinking of dinner.

One large irritation is Pekar--in all his incarnations. His whining wears on me, like reading anti-tax letters to the editor: It's all about my life, and my comfort, goddammit. Sure, Pekar mocks himself, but since self-loathing is a feature of this martyrdom (both on the page and on the screen), it's difficult to distinguish between caricature and canonization. Both the film and comic play to the audience's self-righteous desire to bitch about, say, Jewish matrons who hold up grocery lines. According to the real Brabner, Pekar avoids the happier stuff of their lives in his comic book: "He doesn't think sunshine and flowers sell."

Beyond that quote (and a sentimental coda), the documentary portions of American Splendor accept Pekar's sales strategy. Thus, when things get complicated (Pekar becomes a human pet trick on David Letterman; a unique co-worker, Toby, goes on MTV), the film doesn't have the depth to question its own use of Pekar and Toby for comic purposes. (Neither does it question Pekar's accountability to himself, his co-workers, and family.) Instead it faithfully serves up Pekar's superficial victim cant: "It seemed like real salt-of-the-earth people like me and Toby were getting co-opted by these huge corporations." Berman and Pulcini then grant Pekar a little rah-rah, man-of-the-people revenge--along with much footage of airplanes. (So much for inventive storytelling.)

By the time that prostate cancer shows up for the last act, the featured comic book panels were making this critic long to be reading. At least Brabner and Pekar's Our Cancer Year had a handle on visceral. The movie, on the other hand, is a flat, subject-absorbed bio-pic that leaves the viewer wishing to know more about the wife, the co-workers, the childhood, the music, the culture--heck, even those huge corporations. Not to mention all the frustrated Pekars, endlessly rejecting then clutching at a toxic tradition of "real" manhood--unable (or unwilling?) to see past the script.

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