If Judge Mike Pinsky made a comic book out of his life, it would have to be drawn with stick figures, not just because he can't draw. He just looks that way in real life.
"So, absurd as it really might be to believe it, we really think we're very important, regardless of how insignificant or short-lived we are. After all, we're the only ones living in our heads and in our skins."—Harvey Pekar, I'll Be Forty-three on Friday (How I'm Living Now)
From off the streets of Cleveland comes…
The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar. File clerk, record collector, three times married, popular culture icon. Since 1976, Harvey has put out an annual comic book, American Splendor, chronicling the minutiae of his curiously normal life. Oh, he does not draw at all. He just tells stories and hands them over to friends to draw. So there are many Harvey Pekars: abstract, roughly cartoonish, delicately realistic, comic or tragic. This is the story of one man's life, which might be the life of many men. Or maybe just the one.
Oh, to hell with it. Harvey would just want us to shut up and listen to his story. So let's go…
I discovered the comic book American Splendor in the mid-1980s, when I was in college. Over the years, I have collected the annual issues, two anthology volumes, and the riveting Our Cancer Year. I watched Harvey nearly self-destruct on David Letterman's show, then waited for him to tell the story from his perspective.
One of the key conceits of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's screenplay for the film version of American Splendor is to play off one of the comic book's most curious features: Harvey changes from story to story, as different artists interpret his tales. While a handful of artists tend to work with Harvey most often over the years (Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray, and most prominently Robert Crumb, subject of an idiosyncratic biopic himself), the mercurial nature of Harvey's personality suits the book's changing style perfectly. Rather than try to sum up Harvey Pekar from one perspective, as a traditional biographical film might, Pulcini and Berman feature several Harvey Pekars.
Front and center is Harvey the movie character. Paul Giamatti could have easily played this Harvey as a slovenly caricature, along the lines of Crumb's wrinkly artwork. Rather, Giamatti's performance captures the frustration of a man who has a lot to say but is never quite sure how to say it—or to whom. When we first meet the adult Harvey in 1975, he is suffering a bout of psychosomatic laryngitis. His second wife has just dumped him, and his voice has closed in on itself. Feeling the urge to talk about his ordinary life with someone—anyone—Harvey enlists pal Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) to create a comic book. But Harvey's comic book will not be about teen power fantasies (superheroes) or frustrated political ambitions (the '60s underground). He wants a comic book that functions much like a neorealist film: a careful, deliberately paced, ground-level chronicle of lower-middle class life. As Harvey acknowledges, "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."
As Harvey's American Splendor begins to saturate the comics underground, he catches the attention of geeky Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). A quick and quirky courtship later, they settle in for a series of…well, it probably is not safe to call them "adventures." We see Harvey's brief flirtation with the public, as he plays a cartoonish version of himself (yet another Harvey!) on David Letterman's show. We see his office pals, especially "genuine nerd" Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), cope with the attention now paid to their lives. We see Harvey and Joyce adopt a daughter (Madylin Sweeten). We see Harvey's battle with cancer, filtered through the creation of his book Our Cancer Year (which you should rush out and buy right now). It is all funny and painful.
But layered on top of all this—and perhaps this is exactly what keeps it all from getting sentimental—is the real Harvey Pekar, popping up to comment on this version of his life story. Look for Donal Logue and Molly Shannon in a hilariously pretentious parody that also undercuts the main action. Parts of the story are told as comic panels, and actors intersect with their real-life counterparts. The story fragments, falls back on itself, and ultimately begins to look an awful lot like its comic book inspiration.
While the episodic nature of the film might make the plot feel disconnected at times, the pieces ultimately fall into place. For instance, early in the film, Harvey panics at the thought he might have cancer. The audience chuckles at his hypochondria, as if he is just a blue-collar Woody Allen. Later, when Harvey really does battle cancer, we understand his terror: all his paranoid fears are coming to pass. Often the script is aware of its gameplaying, as when musings on reading a Theodore Dreiser novel in one scene become a microcosm of the film itself.
The whole thing is held together in part by the marvelous performance of Paul Giamatti. While it might be easy to admire Giamatti simply for imitating the real Pekar, his acting here runs deeper. Giamatti's Harvey stands on his own as a character, and we can see the thoughts moving in his head even without the comic-book conceit of voiceover narration. Indeed, Giamatti's "phone book" soliloquy late in the film, in which he muses on the nature of self-identity upon discovering other Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland phone book, is one of the most touching moments caught on film in 2003. Of course, it helps that Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander turn in excellent performances as well, giving their characters depth and complexity drawn from years of the real Pekar's biographical portraiture.
You can meet the real Harvey Pekar and the gang on a lively, if occasionally cluttered, commentary track for the film. Harvey, Joyce, Toby, and daughter Danielle are joined by Giamatti, Pulcini, and Berman (Friedlander shows up about midway through). Joyce and Danielle have a fun time teasing Harvey, who takes it all in good humor (much more than I suspect his cinematic avatar would), while Toby plays master-of-ceremonies after a fashion. A peppy promo short on the film's Sundance and Cannes premieres (the film won awards from both festivals) unfortunately manages to make Harvey and Joyce look rather lost and foolish, but apart from an Easter egg on the brief MTV career of Toby Radloff, there is not much else in the way of useful extras on the disc. Credit must go to HBO Video for being smart enough to commission a new comic from Harvey and Gary Dumm, entitled "My Movie Year," which is included as an insert.
The comic insert proves within a few pages what I have been saying all along about Harvey Pekar's work. Year after year in American Splendor the book, Harvey turned the ordinary nothings around him into sublime art. Better still, Harvey's work rarely aspires to be merely a funny diversion: even his comedy is tinged with the bittersweet flavor of a man who feels too much for the world around him.
Harvey Pekar's work is even more relevant than when I read it originally back in the 1980s: his meticulous chronicle serves as the prototype for the current trend of weblogging. But while most blogs are narcissistic, no better than middle-school poetry journals, Pekar's best stories as often less about him than about the world and the characters that rotate around him. Harvey Pekar in American Splendor is a character—or a series of characters—and not the real Harvey. But each variation adds up to a complex portrait of life from off the streets of Cleveland. Pulcini and Berman clearly understand this, and their work on the film version of American Splendor captures this complexity with cleverness and understanding and empathy.
I was pleased to choose American Splendor as my pick for best film of 2003 (I figured Return of the King did not need my help) when it came time to vote for the Online Film Critics Society awards. I still think this film is a skillful and witty blend of biography and thoughts on the genre of biography, the odd intersections between fiction and life, and the quixotic nature of self-identity—all held together by thoughtful performances and a script that really understands its source material. Even if the original American Splendor may not be what comes to mind when you think of comic books (although maybe it should), the cinematic American Splendor may be one of the finest "comic book movies" yet made.
But don't tell Harvey. It will just give him something else to fret about.
This court releases Harvey Pekar and his collaborators. The file for this case will remain open in anticipation of future tales of Mr. Pekar's life. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by the Real-Life Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Danielle Batone, and Toby Radloff, with Actors Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander, and Writers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
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