Few would argue that the ever-expanding diversity of cinema—where voices other than those from the Hollywood assembly line find an outlet in art-house theaters around the country—is a bad thing. What I would contend, however, is that such progress has given rise to a multitude of sub-genres in which we’re given access to a tiny cultural (frequently a pop-cultural one) niche populated by quirky, atypical characters who, by acting in a moderately subversive fashion, are bestowed with a critic-proof cache of hipness by said niche’s ardent devotees. Such is the case with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s slight, mildly amusing American Splendor. This awkward documentary, dramatized biopic, animated comic-book hybrid charts the life and times of Harvey Pekar, the underground sensation whose series of scathing autobiographical comics in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s gave voice to everyman feelings of boredom, resentment, anger, desperation, paranoia and caustic disgruntlement.
Pekar was a lazy, slovenly guy working a dead-end file clerk job in the mid-‘70s when—in order to express his chronic irritability and depression over a second failed marriage, as well as to try and emulate his friend Robert Crumb’s success as a counter-culture comic-book phenom—he began writing stories about his mundane life. He was Jerry Seinfeld, except instead of cheerily examining day-to-day minutiae, the humor of Pekar’s work was a byproduct of the writer’s ever-present acerbic grimness. With a variety of artists illustrating his stories, Pekar rose to semi-prominence with the sardonically-titled American Splendor series, even regularly appearing on Late Night with David Letterman to hawk his books, but despite this modest success, he never left his day job (which provided an endless stream of material for the comics he penned) and he never stopped being an irascible curmudgeon at heart.
Berman and Pulcini’s film wants to pay homage to Pekar without resorting to a straightforward biographical narrative, so they’ve devised a structure in which their dramatized life story is narrated by Pekar himself and periodically interrupted by staged documentary moments in which Pekar and other people from his comics (and life)—including wife Joyce and nerdy co-worker Toby—talk about the “real” Pekar. This act of unabashed postmodern self-commentary is employed to deliberately blur the distinction between the authentic Harvey Pekar, his comic-book character, and actor Paul Giamatti’s faithful recreation of Pekar for the film, but such gimmickry requires a more complex and fascinating subject than this working-class grouch-turned-minor celebrity. Pekar can be a hilariously incisive humorist of everyday struggles and triumphs, and his fictionalized real life adventures repeatedly prove a fact made glaringly evident by the film’s title sequence, in which Giamatti’s slumped shuffle around a downtrodden Cleveland neighborhood is set inside comic-book panels: the comics were based on Pekar’s actual experiences. The film’s plethora of unnecessary compositional devices, rather than providing us with diverse portraits of Pekar (as the illustrators of his books did by drawing him in wildly different styles), come across as distracting affectations bent on obscuring the fact that the writer’s story doesn’t have the heft required to sustain a feature film.
Giamatti gives an unruly, nuanced performance as Pekar, and Hope Davis—as neurotic hypochondriac Joyce—is an ideal nutcase foil to his high priest of misery, but they’re given the unmanageable task of holding together a greatest-hits collage of Pekar’s life that will likely appeal to only die-hard fans of the author’s work. There are a few hilarious sequences that capture the essence of Pekar’s frustration-imbued prose—the best of which finds Pekar, Joyce, and Toby debating the merits of Revenge of the Nerds—but the stream of inside jokes included for Pekar aficionados makes one feel as though the filmmakers are aggressively courting those fans in the hope that they’ll elevate the film to cult status a la Crumb and Ghost World (two better films that chart similar milieus). Pekar eventually learns to become a slightly more stable husband and family man, even agreeing to adopt the daughter of a friend after years of proudly discussing his vasectomy, while still proclaiming that his life remains “total chaos.” Pekar would find subsequent success with Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel (co-written by Joyce) about his battle with testicular cancer that would years later serve as inspiration for Tom Green’s own testicular cancer television special—an ironic legacy for an anti-establishment malcontent who, one can safely assume, would despise being associated with such an insufferable, untalented buffoon.