American Splendor
starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis
4 1/2 stars

review by Stephen Notley

We've seen a fair number of comic book movies in the last little while; Hollywood seems to be going through one of its fixated phases. So we've got superheroes, of course  --Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men, Spider-Man-- but we've also seen some comic-based stuff that's a little more human in movies like Ghost World and (I guess) Road to Perdition. Out of all these movies, though, none is more comic-book like, or more human, than American Splendor.

The film shows its love and understanding of comics from the first scene and credit sequence. Starting by framing the picture with a comic caption with the date and place, we see a group of kids out at Hallowe'en. There's a Superman, a Batman, a Spider-Manů and then there's this grumpy-looking little kid. Who are you supposed to be? "I'm Harvey Pekar. I'm just a kid from the neighborhood."

In the credits, Harvey introduces himself in comics form, panels of Crumb-illustrated comics which tell us in Pekar's conversational style that "I'm a character in an underground comic." Different panels show the ways different artists have drawn him, along with panels showing the actor playing Pekar, Paul Giamatti, walking thorugh Cleveland streets in scenes that could and probably were panels from the comic. And, as the credits come to a close, we go to Harvey himself, the real Harvey, raspily recording the narration we've been hearing.

Harvey Pekar is a curious cat. Hunched, balding, rasping, ailing, he works as a file clerk in a hospital in Cleveland. He's got a snarly tone and a crushed, defeated air, particularly when his wife dumps him just as his voice is giving out completely.

And yet, somehow, he's not completely defeated. Through his obsessive jazz-single collection habit he meets Robert Crumb (played in the movie by a guy who looks nothing like him), himself on the verge of launching an explosion of underground comics. And through Crumb Harvey discovers something strange about himself: a total mind for comics combined with a total inability to draw.  Working with stick figures in the most amateurish-seeming way possible, he scribbles out comic scripts. 

And they're good. Harvey's got something nobody else quite has, the ability to see the plain and humdrum, spot how interesting it is, and write a comic about it. As he says to Crumb, "Ordinary life is some pretty complex stuff," and we see it with him, his conversations with his lugubrious co-workers, other people's stories he records. He starts putting out comics, and even though his life stays the same, he keeps working as a file clerk, he never becomes a star, things start to happen to him. 

His comics, preposterously, even help him find someone, Joyce Brabner, a comic-store owner who phoned him to get a copy of his comic and ends up marrying him. And then she enters the world, the many-versioned-world of Harvey Pekar, with Hope Davis playing her in film and the various artists' versions in the panels that pop up here and there as she starts appearing in the comic. And though she's got loads of problems of her own, she and Harvey, somehow, click. 

And life goes on, with good and bad, guest appearances on Letterman, bouts of cancer, victories, defeats, all with the humdrum Cleveland background humming away behind them. Always interesting, always involving.

Not only is the movie about reality, it also slyly plays with reality, mixing the different incarnations of Harvey in striking ways. Paul-Harvey leaves the green room to do the Letterman show, then real-Harvey does the real show. Paul-Harvey chats with his borderline-autistic co-worker Toby Radloff, and then they go behind the scenes and we see real-Harvey talking to real-Toby. It's not asking "What is real" in any fancy, show-offy way, but nonetheless by the time you've finished watching the film, you have an answer: American Splendor.