Spending his whole life growing up in Cleveland in a persistent state of annoyance and loathing, Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, "Big Fat Liar," "Planet of the Apes") is at his wit's end. Stuck in a filing clerk job that he hates, surrounded by friends that frustrate him, and without the affections of a woman to get him through the night, Pekar decides one day to put his thoughts to paper, comic-book style. When friend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, doing an incredible impression) offers to help Pekar by adding his illustrations, the book, "American Splendor," becomes a huge hit among underground comic aficionados. Pekar's fame brings him a wife, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis, adequate in the role), guest shots on "Late Night with David Letterman," and a notoriety he could never have imagined. Eventually, Pekar is diagnosed with cancer, and the illness allows him a rare opportunity to put his peculiar life into focus.
The minds behind the underground comic scene of the 1970s and 80s were first examined in 1995's documentary "Crumb" by Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World"). Following artist Robert Crumb around through his daily rituals, pausing occasionally for a Crumb-based rant on humanity, "Crumb" was an intriguing portrait of the frayed master responsible for some of the most demented, revealing comics of the last 30 years. "American Splendor" takes the documentary approach of "Crumb" and merges it with artifice, showing Crumb collaborator Harvey Pekar in both his real visage and as the actor who plays him.
"American Splendor's" structure prevents it from being as hypnotic as "Crumb." Co-writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are after a cinematic representation of the fragmented world Pekar lives in. To accomplish this, the filmmakers rely upon filming techniques, such as splitting the screen into comic book panels, bringing Crumb's drawings to life, and sprinkling the picture with interludes featuring the real people the actors are interpreting. As successful as this is in representing Pekar's high-strung world, it doesn't always make for good cinema. Seeing the real personalities in Pekar's world takes the punch out of the stellar performances delivered by the actors.
Although he's an actor whose inconsistency is only outmatched by his volume, Paul Giamatti simply owns the role of Harvey. Contorting his body into an oafish hump and finding a facial grimace that could only be brought on by decades of self-loathing, Giamatti is the splendor in "American Splendor." Working with a man who could be a living comic book character, Giamatti manages to walk the delicate tightrope of performance and parody and molds very real person out of Pekar, while managing to hit all the prerecorded mannerisms and life regrets that consume Pekar on a daily basis. I never expect too much from Giamatti, and that makes his committed performance here all the sweeter.
Berman and Pulcini have based the film on two of Pekar and Brabner's books, "American Splendor" and "Our Cancer Year." The film is structured into two sections as well. The audience is encouraged to laugh, or at the very least look on with extreme bewilderment, at Pekar in the first two acts of the film. Once Pekar discovers his cancer, "American Splendor" becomes the type of film Pekar wouldn't approve of. The laughs pretty much stop, and Berman and Pulcini hope that they've done their job well enough so some sentiment can come creeping in. It's tough to buy this when Pekar's world would never be so black and white. A far more successful film could've been created had the mixture of comedy, fantasy, and cold reality been continuingly blending throughout the proceedings. While the picture is a superior depiction of the fractured mind at play, it doesn't successfully capture the nature of Harvey Pekar the way his comics have done for him all these years.
Filmfodder Grade: B-