If you’re looking for a comic-book hero at the multiplex this summer, Harvey Pekar would be the worst possible candidate. And he’d say so, too. He’s no Hulk, no Daredevil, no Spider-Man. In American Splendor (which opens Friday, Aug. 22, at Neptune and Uptown), based on his autobiographical comic book of the same name, Pekar doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of himself: It’s a stick figure, in factthe man can’t even draw, as becomes humiliatingly clear during the mid-’70s when the Cleveland hospital file clerk attempts to emulate the success of his old record-collecting buddy, Robert Crumb. But Splendor is much more cheerful viewing than 1994’s patho-bathyspheric documentary Crumbperhaps because its subject rejects any pretensions to being a genius. This working stiff is too busy making a living.
Though directed by documentary filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, Splendor is not a doc but a hybrid. Pekar appears in it, but so does the actor Paul Giamatti (playing Pekar) and so do various renderings of Pekar (drawn by Crumb and others), who pop up periodically in animated panels to comment on or take over the action. Splendor leaps around from the ’50s to the present, alternates between its double cast of subjects and actors, and incorporates real footage from Pekar’s notoriously sour, crotchety Letterman show rants (he appeared on the show several times between 1986 and 1988). Pekar himself narrates, his Rust Belt rasp banishing the voice of hokey Hollywood sentimentality and convention.
It also helps serve Pekar’s spirit of acerbic humanism that Giamatti has been so perfectly cast. As a comic actor, he’s been fairly astonishing since his 1997 breakout as Howard Stern’s mad-dog radio manager in Private Parts. Here, his role is more seriocomic-pathetic; his Pekar is an outraged everyman, peevish and truculent when trapped in a slow-moving supermarket checkout line, then still more peevish and truculent when he considers the real source of his irritation: his own peevishness and truculence.
Brooding around Cleveland with hands in pockets and a perpetual grimace, Giamatti slays me with his sheer exasperationhe captures how Pekar is simultaneously desperate to succeed at something (comics) yet disgusted with the very notion of success. He’s too smart to buy into it (which will be the source of his Letterman meltdowns), too pained by his obscurity to give up hope entirely: After his comic book has given him a small measure of ’80s underground fame, the hopelessly single Pekar meets an attractive, admiring woman he knew from college. He can’t believe she’s praising his work; then she divulges she’s married, and Giamatti’s face marvelously falls in two separate stages of crushing disappointmentlike the dam collapsing, then the flood behind it. Again, he hates himself for hoping.
GIVEN THAT HE’S playing such a self- absorbed ruminator, Giamatti does his best work opposite a female foil. Pekar needs to be tripped, to get those hands out of his pockets so he doesn’t fall flat on the sidewalk. There’s another wonderful bit, earlier, when he desperately pleads through laryngitic windpipes for his girlfriend not to leave him. The arrival of Hope Davis as Pekar’s eventual wife, Joyce Brabner (also a comic-book author), signals Splendor‘s turn toward a more affirmative, if still unconventional, love story. As in About Schmidt, Davis is again a figure of mousy strength, a hypochondriac, a Yuppie hater, a housewife who doesn’t want to be a housewife.
That these two kindred malcontents should find love is the sort of thing that gives you, yes, hope at this point in the summer box-office season. So soon after having chased Ben and J.Lo from the screen for their patently bogus romance, Gigli, moviegoers should be craving the bifold reality of Splendor. We get the two gifted performers showing all those rocky patches along the marital road, and we get Brabner and Pekar themselves, who sigh and comment upon their past spats and frictions. I’ve got to think this would be the greatest form of marriage counseling in the world: to see your relationship portrayed on stage or screen. (Though when Pekar and Brabner venture to L.A. to view a play based on his comic book, they’re horrified.)
Yet for all its early ingenuity, Splendor does become a more conventional and less interesting film as it goes along. We see less of Pekar and Brabner, more of Giamatti and Davis; the zippy interplay begins to fade. Splendor is ultimately not about very much: the modest failure and modest success of a modest, self- deprecating guy who finally finds some measure of happiness with a modest, improvised family. As Pekar says, in what has become the film’s tag line, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” True enough, so far as that takes you. Devotees of his comic book will have already absorbed the notion; for the majority of viewers unfamiliar with the man or his work, Splendor‘s small scale has its limits. It’s a very finely sliced slice of life, indeed. You don’t have to call the film a sellout to understand why it finally comes garnished with lump-in-your-throat feeling and swelling musicthe triumph of the ordinary: love, family, courage in the face of illness.
Perhaps by way of rebuttal, Pekar says in voice-over, “Don’t think I buy into any of this growth crap.” By the time you’re done with Splendor, that looks like grouchy denialbut not hypocrisy. I can’t think of a more satisfying film this year where the hero is so wrong about himself.