At the beginning of American Splendor, a v.o. narration by the real Harvey Pekar describes the man portraying him in the film.
“This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere,” says Pekar, who wrote the legendary American Splendor comic book series illustrated by some of America’s best cartoonists (most notably Robert Crumb). As Pekar talks, a depressed “Pekar” (Giamatti) walks the streets of Cleveland on his way to the VA hospital he worked at as a filing clerk for most of his life, even after becoming famous in the comics world. If you ever read the comic, you must agree: Giamatti as Pekar is perfect casting. But the real Pekar continues describing Giamatti’s character (and himself): “Although he’s a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shitty neighborhoods, held shitty jobs, and he’s now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie.”
Yet, the movie is far from depressing. In fact, it is inspiring and funny as hell, an imaginative wonder that more than pays justice to a comic series that’s unlike any other. American Splendor, the comic book, is a sarcastic look at the real America, and the (anti)heroes are those in the majority, the ones holding dead-end jobs for minimum wage; American Splendor, the movie, is a documentary within a narrative film, but there’s also room for animated segments and, at times, you see both Pekars (the real man and the actor) next to each other or on separate shots. The story is so masterfully told that everything works organically; soon enough you don’t care about what’s what and just want to keep watching.
“You might as well know right off the bat — I had a vasectomy,” is the first thing Pekar says upon meeting writer Joyce Brabner (Davis), a fan. “I think we should skip the whole courtship thing and just get married,” she tells him. So they did, and when Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma in the early ’90s, they worked together on Our Cancer Year, an American Splendor-styled chronicle of his battle with cancer.
“You turned yourself into a comic hero?” Crumb asked him when he first saw Pekar’s stick figures and texts. “Sorta, yeah,” Pekar replied. “But no idealized shit. No phony bullshit. The real thing, you know? Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004.
This is the first of the relocated (and now weekly) Doc and Indie Film Screenings series previously held every other Monday at The Friendly Spot.
Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; writ. Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; feat. Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis. (R)
Doc and Indie Film Screenings
8:30pm Thursday, May 19
King’s Court Frankfurter Express, 111 Kings Court
(210) 737-7774; firstname.lastname@example.org