Every once in a while a picture comes along that’s so unexpectedly good that it renews your faith in the wisdom of going to the movies. And when such a film pops up in the cinematic dog days of August, it’s a double blessing. “American Splendor” is such a flick–an inventive, spiky yet touching portrait of comic-book curmudgeon Harvey Pekar. Part dramatized autobiography and part stream-of-consciousness recollection by Pekar himself, with some “documentary” footage and animation added for good measure, the picture blends reality and recreation with a startling degree of imagination and charm, making for a post-modernist experience that’s sharply witty, curiously warm and wonderfully entertaining.
Paul Giamatti gives an amazing performance as Pekar, to whom we’re introduced as he prowls the streets of his native Cleveland and interacts with his co-workers at a V.A. hospital, most notably self-proclaimed nerd Toby Radloff (the glorious Judah Friedlander) and opinionated Mr. Boats (Earl Billings). His fondness for collecting old jazz 78s at garage sales leads to a chance encounter with artist Robert Crumb (the hilariously otherworldly James Urbaniak), and the two become oddball pals; after Crumb strikes it rich in underground comics, Pekar persuades his friend to illustrate his rants on the small humiliations of everyday life. The result is American Splendor magazine, a sort of stand-up routine on the printed page, in which Pekar becomes an idiosyncratic exponent of lower-class observations, complaints and dashed hopes. Its success earns him a degree of celebrity as a repeated guest–a raspy voice of the enraged common man–on David Letterman’s Late Night show, and attracts the attention of a fan named Joyce (Hope Davis), a neurotically health-obsessed free spirit who comes to visit him from the East Coast and eventually becomes his wife (by picture’s end the couple has even adopted a child). Yet a serious illness intervenes as well.
Even had Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who co-wrote and co-directed the movie (Pulcini was also the editor), approached this material in an entirely conventional fashion, it would–given the spectacularly grumpy, disheveled work by Giamatti and an equally brilliant if more subdued turn by an almost unrecognizable Davis, who plays Joyce like a hypochondriacal version of Charles Addams’ Morticia–probably have been a delight. But they tweak things to turn it into a textured, multi-layered piece, melding the “straight” narrative with periodic observations by the real Harvey (who often comments on the film itself), recollections by Joyce, and bits of animated footage featuring Pekar as he looked in the comics. But that’s not all. We’re introduced to the authentic Toby and Mr. Boats as well as their beautifully-realized impersonators, and confronted with actual footage of Harvey’s Letterman appearances along with recreations featuring Giamatti. (At one point toward the close, the Letterman scenes conflate TV tape with newly-filmed material, so that Pekar suddenly turns into Giamatti; and amazingly the identity has merged so completely by then that the shift seems utterly natural rather than an affectation.) Elsewhere, another level is added to the mix when Harvey and Joyce visit a California production of a play based on his life (the precursor to this picture, in a way); in the scene, Giamatti and Davis, playing Harvey and Joyce, watch Harvey and Joyce being played by Donal Logue and Molly Shannon, while the real Harvey and Joyce comment on the original experience for us.
You might think that this complicated technique would render “American Splendor” the same sort of tiresome trick that Charlie Kaufman’s juvenile joking made “Adaptation” last year, or at least reduce it to the level of an elaborate but sterile joke. But it doesn’t at all: the approach actually enriches and deepens Pekar’s story, giving it greater edge and poignancy. Unlike most documentaries, which allow one to observe their subjects in an almost detached way however well they’re made, and virtually all fictionalized autobiographies, which have a strong element of phoniness to them, this picture, despite (or because of) its narrative complexity and surrealistic touches, gets the viewer incredibly close to the people it’s about, engendering empathy for them in an extraordinarily powerful way. You wind up being amused by these characters–who are, after all, fringe-dwellers of a sort pretty much ignored in American films nowadays–but also genuinely moved by them, because, as it turns out, their tale is actually one of the most peculiar fulfillments of the American dream ever committed to celluloid.
What’s ultimately most satisfying about “American Splendor” is that it so obstinately refuses any easy pigeon-holing. As a comedy it’s hilarious: the episode recounting Harvey and Joyce’s first date is absurdist farce at the highest level. As a drama it’s wrenching: a bout with cancer is presented with remarkable effect. As cultural commentary it’s invigorating: Pekar’s rants are wickedly sharp. As social observation it’s quietly profound: its depiction of Harvey’s work environment and portraits of his friends are amazingly acute and sympathetic. As a character study it captures the essence of its subject brilliantly. And as a piece of technical virtuosity it’s a marvel: its multi-perspective approach is flawlessly accomplished. But the most astonishing thing is that the sum proves more than the individually superb parts. Miraculously, the picture succeeds as a coherent whole rather than a jumble of clever effects. It’s a weird and wonderful little masterpiece, an oddball classic and one of the year’s best movies.