Several among us can't draw straight lines. Many also have lives filled with banalities like car troubles, funds shortages, a boring job. Of the latter, if we just pay closer attention we'll notice bits of entertaining eccentricity among our co-workers. Small moments that would otherwise be forgotten had it not been for someone like famous underground cartoonist R. Crumb. The same guy who caused an uproar with the feline hippie escapades of Fritz the Cat. His longtime friend, Cleveland, Ohio shlub Harvey Pekar, one day decided that his life was at least as interesting as that of any other average Joe. Harvey, yes, could not draw a straight line. He could manage to put down some stick figures and text that would be worked by Crumb and others into "American Splendor", a comic that would continue for over 30 years.
2003's AMERICAN SPLENDOR tells his story in both traditional and unique ways. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar from his early 20s through 60s, highlighting his days in obscurity as a file clerk at the local Veteran's Administration hospital and onward as the crumudgeon becomes wider known for the sardonic strip. He'll even go on to regular appearances on The David Letterman Show in the 80s (until he gets himself kicked off). After self-publishing (and losing money) on the comic for years, the publisher Dark Horse would acquire it. Harvey never stopped working at the VA. He would only earn two raises in his three decades there.
But why should Harvey quit? Plenty of fodder for readers there, the very basis and meat (gristle?) of the comic. The (entertainingly) trivial finds a sizable audience. Fame (such as it is) does not bring happiness, however. Along the way, Harvey also meets and marries Joyce, a likely manic depressive whose psychoses allow her to diagnose everyone else. Hope Davis does fine work as the bespectacled waif who once ran a comic book store and decided to call Pekar when she ran out of copies of issues of "American Splendor." They talk on the phone; perhaps there is some common ground?
Their eventual meeting is a refreshing bit of cinema; this is no meet cute, gauzy lensed, pop ditty-soundtracked pap, but rather an honest, no frills stare at two lonely, frazzled souls. Harvey looks as unkempt as ever when he meets Joyce for the first time. His apartment looks even worse, but he's honest, no airs. He also informs her within seconds of their first meeting that he's had a vasectomy. Later that night, Joyce states that they should skip the courtship and just get married.
Throughout AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the real Harvey and Joyce will appear in between dramatizations to offer commentary and updates on their lives. Also, proudly nerdish co-worker Toby (Judah Friedlander) will have his real-life counterpart show how eerily accurate the former's performance really is. I enjoyed the scene where Giamatti and Friedlander sit in director's chairs and observe, with great amusement, a conversation between the real Harvey and Toby. It might sound like a pretentious experiment, and in other hands it very well could've been. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini somehow make everything seem organic. It is perfectly reasonable for us to watch scripted remembrances side-to-side with the real folks. Somehow, it doesn't feel "produced" or condescending.
That's what struck me about AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the warmth. None of these characters are exactly warm, mind you, but they're human. Quite funny at times, too. The directors observe their subjects with respect, never making ivory tower judgments or easy jokes. The latter is why Pekar grew increasingly bitter about his appearances on Letterman's show. Harvey was keenly aware of the talk show host's pedilection for mocking and point-and-laugh humor. I loved Letterman's 80s show but I certainly agree; it was often mean-spirited. AMERICAN SPLENDOR never is, and that's one of the several reasons it's worth your time to meet Harvey and company.
Sadly, Pekar passed away this summer. I read this mere hours after I watched the film. Expectedly, it added much poignancy to an already emotional story. The final scenes of AMERICAN SPLENDOR make a bittersweet preface as Harvey describes, in his typical deadpan fashion, that even though he's survived cancer and adopted a daughter, life is still a daily struggle, and will be till he dies. My hope is that Mr. Pekar found some Peace in his final hours.....