american splendor (2003)


director: shari springer berman, robert pulcini

paul giamatti, hope davis, judah friedlander

Portraying a life of misery onscreen is considered a brave but uncommercial move, so what would you call a film where the life of misery belongs to someone real, someone who pops up onscreen to comment on the story as it unfolds?

American Splendor, based on the ongoing comic book biography of Clevelandís Harvey Pekar, is either incredibly brave or hopelessly dishonest, or both. Pekarís reputation is that of a depressive nobody, but most people might remember his short but memorable string of appearances on the David Letterman show, culminating in a dyspeptic and unwelcome on-camera rant about Letterman and his corporate bosses that got him banned from the show - hardly the usual venue for depressive nobodies.

Paul Giamatti plays the movie Pekar, a scowling, ranting crank trapped in a hopeless job and a life apparently leached of options or hope. A chance friendship with comic artist Robert Crumb (a small but beautifully observed turn by James Urbaniak) inspires Harvey to start telling his life story in comic form, and the marginal fame he earns from this attracts Joyce (the deadpan Hope Davis), a fan who becomes his wife after the most unromantic courtship imaginable.

The film takes pains to be essentially true to the facts of Pekarís life - heís there, after all, to comment on Giamattiís performance, and to add an unprecedented poignancy to the whole project, especially as it covers the year he spent battling cancer. But itís the way that the film suddenly takes on a stirring urgency when the real Harvey shows up that underlines the problems with the whole premise, and more.

Harvey is, after all, a real person, and a stridently, purposefully unglamorous one at that, but nowhere near the hostile neurotic played by Giamatti. In any other film, without the real Harvey on hand, Giamattiís performance might have seemed impressive, but with Pekar sometimes occupying the same frame as Giamattiís character, youíre struck by how much more personality the real Pekar projects, evincing diffidence and even charm.

Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were both brave and blessed to have so much co-operation from their subject, but their stylistic coup unwittingly exposes a basic fact about movies - that theyíre enormous, audacious lies. A real person is always more interesting than a character onscreen, and real life is more affecting than a film, if far less concise. These facts are both mundane and overwhelming, and American Splendor, by drawing attention to them, might have inadvertently become the greatest anti-movie ever made.