by Andy Spletzer

American Splendor

dirs. Berman & Pulcini

Opens Fri Aug 29

Cinema 21

Harvey Pekar is not your typical movie hero. A file clerk at a VA hospital for most of his adult life, he was in his spare time an obsessive jazz record collector who would sometimes write music and book reviews. Thrice married (the last one stuck), he recently survived lymphatic cancer. A child of Cleveland, he's lived a drab and ordinary life. Oh yeah, and he's been writing an autobiographical comic book called American Splendor since 1976.

It's the comic book that raised Pekar's profile above all other file clerks and blue-collar workers--and even most white-collar workers--by emphasizing the poetry of the everyday experience. Some credit, and others blame, Pekar for launching the genre of the autobiographical underground comic book that focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. When it's done poorly, it never overcomes its dull and self-indulgent conceit. But Pekar does it extremely well.

My favorite line in American Splendor, the movie based on Pekar's life and comic, is not spoken out loud but instead takes place during a cutaway to a comic-book panel. In it, Pekar is standing at a sink overflowing with dishes; in a word balloon he says, "Poor dishwashing has always been my Achilles' heel." I love that: The ordinary becomes epic--and as I look out into the unconquerable clutter of my own apartment, I know exactly how he feels. That's the magic of his writing. Both sincere and self-deprecating, his observations resonate beyond his dreary Cleveland life.

Another reason Pekar's comic has been a consistent underground success for all these years is because he stumbled into a cabal of talented artists. American Splendor shows him meeting fellow Clevelander Robert Crumb as they look through old jazz records at a yard sale. Pekar later pitches the idea of the American Splendor comic book to him. Barely able to draw stick figures, Pekar has a strong sense of storytelling, and Crumb and others are able to visualize the text they're given. The comic becomes a collaboration, with each artist giving a slightly different take on Pekar; some (like Crumb) show him as disheveled and creepy, while others show him as disheveled and sort of handsome, and the differences of perspective and lack of a unified vision help give a fuller idea of Harvey Pekar, the man.

Former documentary directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's) could have easily adapted a storyline out of the books and created a compelling movie out of American Splendor. Certainly, their casting was impeccable: Paul Giamatti plays Pekar with a perpetual scowl that always has a sense of humor behind it, while James Urbaniak is great in the small role of Crumb, and Hope Davis shines through the drab exterior of Joyce, Pekar's third wife and ultimate partner. In fact, the many scenes Springer Berman and Pulcini do dramatize turn out great--like the first date when Pekar takes Joyce to a mall restaurant where they both feel out of place, and where his first instinct is to blurt out that he's had a vasectomy. Doing straight re-creations throughout the film would have been like having only one artist illustrate Pekar's words, however, so for the bulk of the picture they instead capture the collage-like spirit of the books by incorporating animated drawings, comic-book panels, and commentary by the actual players in the story.

The result is a movie that completely blurs the line between documentary and fiction films. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this hybrid was achieved so successfully; narrative features have long flirted with the documentary form, but always remained fictional. Woody Allen's Zelig is the story of a chameleon so desperate to fit into his historical context that Allen shows him worming his way into actual newsreel footage (long before Forrest Gump did the same thing with digital technology and less of a point of view). Rob Reiner's best movie, This Is Spinal Tap, uses all the tropes of a rockumentary to give life to a fictional band, while The Blair Witch Project actually fooled early viewers with its many layers of faked documentary footage.

Meanwhile, documentaries have been shedding their "objective" and vérité roots, thanks in part to Errol Morris' bold and effective use of re-creations in The Thin Blue Line, something only previously used in cheesy television shows. The essay films of Chris Marker morphed into the personal documentaries of Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, in which opinions and arguments have become more important than objective facts. If fiction films were striving to achieve a sense of reality, popular documentaries were getting more and more subjective.

American Splendor uses as many elements of documentary as it does of docudrama: Narration is spoken by Pekar himself, but then he starts commenting on Giamatti's performance and soon enough all the performers are seen with their real-life counterparts. This collision of truth and fictionalized truth emphasizes the difficulty of capturing a man's life on film. It also allows the filmmakers to use a lot of actual footage that wouldn't have worked near as well if the cast had acted it all out. I'm talking, of course, of the footage of Pekar on Late Night with David Letterman. It's great to see Pekar and Letterman's actual banter, and it shows off Pekar's persona as the reluctant showman. Too bad the filmmakers couldn't get permission to use the footage from the show where Pekar pissed off Letterman enough to not get invited back. With Giamatti playing Pekar, however, we get the next best thing.

As a comic-book movie, American Splendor is more like Crumb and Ghost World than like Spider Man or Daredevil or The Hulk. Along with a deadpan sense of humor, the focus is entirely on character and not at all on spectacle. There's also a tone found in underground comics that this movie perfectly captures. Smartly constructed and often surprising, American Splendor indulges in how artificial the filmmaking process is, and ends up with a heartfelt portrayal of a very real man.