Harvey Pekar is the ultimate little guy -- not just in the comics world, where his American Splendor has been an underground phenomenon for decades, but in real life, as he has held down a steady gig as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital since the beginning of the known universe.
Pekar's life story -- his daily misery and misanthropy resulting from standing in long lines, listening to idiots on the bus, and impatiently waiting for his own death -- has been chronicled in the autobiographical comics, and now those comics (plus outtakes from the rest of Pekar's life) have been turned into an incredibly clever and surprising movie of the same name.
In Splendor, we track Pekar through the bulk of his life, but earnestly we follow his life as a young adult through his retirement. Terminally pissed, he scowls his way through the work day, saving money by patching up his coat with glue and dreaming of success as a comic book creator. He's got straight-outta-real-life stories galore, but the problem is he can't draw a straight line.
A friendship with famed comic artist Robert Crumb results in the creation of American Splendor #1, and the comic slowly grows a fan base in the 1970s underground. His tales of hypochondria and the horrors of daily life don't exactly resonate with the mass media consumer, so Pekar never earns enough money to quit his VA job or move out of his apartment. But he does manage to attract an equally odd wife (played admirably by Hope Davis) and become a minor celebrity, appearing regularly on Late Night with David Letterman.
Pekar would probably be the first to agree that his story isn't so thrilling, but the way it is told to us is. Part documentary, part biography, part animated fantasy, the film weaves among genres smoothly and curiously, always baiting us with a quirky tidbit to discover in the next scene. Paul Giamatti is a treasure as Pekar, nailing his perpetual sneer and hunch (though unfortunately it's impossible to replicate the real Pekar's broken voice). You can compare for yourself of course when Pekar appears in one of the film's many candid interview sequences -- shot during the taping of Pekar's reading of the film's voice-over on weird, dreamlike sets.
Even more successful than Giamatti are Davis as wife Joyce and the inimitable Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff, a Pekar co-worker and self-professed nerd whose monologues on jellybeans and Revenge of the Nerds rank as some of this year's cinematic highlights. Friedlander's portrayal is so over the top that just when you're ready to dismiss him as a total caricature, poof, out pops the real Toby Radloff in one of the behind-the-scenes sequences, proving just how exact Friedlander's performance is. The man deserves an Oscar.
The rest of the film hinges on its self-referential, circuitous storytelling method, which is fascinating and groundbreaking, but which ultimately masks the fact that Pekar's story is as simple and plain as he has always proclaimed. Even though much is made of his fall from grace on Letterman and his bout with lymphoma, these are but a few short vignettes in a life that makes you wonder why it was turned into a movie... except that it is easily mocked by the audience. The film will be far more rewarding to viewers that have some familiarity with Pekar and his work, but otherwise Splendor's message is simplistic to the point of nearly becoming trite: If Harvey can make it, the film tells us, then anybody can. If you're looking to feel good about your own miserable life, well, this is the movie to see.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th September 2003
Box Office USA: $6.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $6M
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 170 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Producer: Ted Hope
Starring: Chris Ambrose as Superman, Joey Krajcar as Batman, Josh Hutcherson as Robin, Cameron Carter as Green Lantern, Daniel Tay as Young Harvey, Mary Faktor as Housewife, Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, Harvey Pekar as Real Harvey, James Urbaniak as Robert Crumb, Judah Friedlander as Toby Radloff, Donal Logue as Stage Actor Harvey, Molly Shannon as Stage Actor Joyce