| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
the movie, celebrates ordinary life, even though the grumpy inspiration behind it would go
to great lengths to argue differently. Harvey Pekar is the phenomenon behind the film, a
refreshing melange mixing documentary and snippets of animation into a true story about a
grouchy Cleveland file clerk who gains notoriety by writing comic books about his
You cant help but like this self-aware loser. Comic book fans
have loved the guy since American Splendor, the real comic book, debuted in 1976.
Self-consciousness is among the movies many charms. Directors
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini work magic using techniques that could easily
make it come off pretentious or coy. But the way the real Harvey and his wife Joyce
Brabner complement actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who portray them in astounding
performances, only adds to the fun, and the level of understanding of these two
Harveys co-worker Toby Radloff gets double treatment, too. Judah
Friedlander plays the nerdy gourmet jelly-bean connoisseur with panache, yet its
even more of a kick when the real Toby shows up in a bright, soundstage documentary
sequence to recommend the pina colada-flavored beans with as much gusto as the actor
appearing as him did.
American Splendor is a chain of delicious small moments set in
grungy, working-class Cleveland and accompanied by a killer soundtrack (John Coltrane,
Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Marvin Gaye) that reflects Harveys obsession with
jazz (hes a music critic as well as clerk and comic writer) and record collecting.
Harvey, in fact, meets comic artist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak in a
delightful, low-keyed performance) while scrounging around for cheap records. These
equally weird guys are naturals as friends, and colleagues, too. Crumb likes Harveys
scratchy commentary about his daily life, and so he agrees to illustrate his vignettes,
which result in the comic American Splendor.
The book takes off in annual installments, with Crumb being one of
several artists who draw Harvey and his stories. The various illustrated incarnations of
Harvey pop up appealingly throughout the movie, too. When Joyce, an extremely sensitive
worker in a comic book store, writes to Harvey to tell him she likes his work, its
the beginning of a quirky romance. She visits him in Cleveland, upchucks in his pigsty of
an apartment on their first date, and soon agrees to marry him.
Still, things are never good for Harvey and Joyce. Harvey still works
full-time filing at the VA hospital in Cleveland, and Joyce wants more from life
kids, or a chance to travel and do good in the world. She briefly leaves an unhappy Harvey
at home while she ventures abroad to do social and political work.
The comic book does make inroads in American culture, though, most
apparently when Harvey appears on David Lettermans show multiple times (footage of
the feisty real Harvey with Dave is spliced in, to brilliant effect) before he alienates
the shows corporate owners with his diatribes. Then theres a play in Los
Angeles based on American Splendor, in which Donal Logue and Molly Shannon play
Joyce and Harvey on stage, while Giamatti and Davis watch, while the real Harvey and Joyce
comment. It sounds mind-numbing, but its really mind-blowing.
The movies biggest dramatic arc one of the few in the film
- comes when Harvey beats cancer, and in the process co-writes a new comic autobiography
with Joyce and becomes the guardian of a teen girl, Danielle. Somehow, Harvey, the
hapless neurotic, ends up with a happy family; American Splendor follows the
journey with originality, humor and humanity.
- Leslie Katz