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Mingling comics and real life


In a no doubt apocryphal scene purportedly from the protagonist Harvey Pekar's life, American Splendor opens with the young Harvey out Halloween trick-or-treating with some other boys. His friends are all dressed as superheroes --- Batman, Superman, etc. --- but Harvey steadfastly rejects costumes and maintains his own identity. The moment sums up most of the action and meaning of this unusual film, based on an unusual series of comic books (known to the cognoscenti these days as graphic novels).

            The youthful version of the protagonist fiercely resists the phoniness he sees everywhere, and refuses the role, to paraphrase David Copperfield, of superhero of his own life. The account of an ordinary man's excruciatingly commonplace daily life constitutes a far more engaging narrative than all those big budget spectaculars based on comics, from Superman to The Hulk, starring creatures with superhuman powers who accomplish incredible deeds.

            Drawn by several different artists, Harvey's ongoing autobiography has, strangely, enchanted legions of readers, entertained millions of television viewers of The Late Show With David Letterman, inspired a play, and now provides the material for what must be the most original motion picture of the year. The movie may depend for its success as much on its process as its product, as much on the methods the directors choose to tell the story as the story itself.

            Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar, while Pekar himself and some of the people in his life also appear in the movie, underlining its paradoxically intricate narrative. At times Harvey speaks directly to the camera or recounts the drab drama of his daily existence in a voice-over. At other times Giamatti's voice blends into Pekar's, just as the actors themselves often merge with their real counterparts. At other times, various cartoonists' representations of Harvey show up. In addition, the movie also includes archival footage of some of Harvey's television appearances: American Splendor constantly alternates media, time periods, and even dimensions with a deft and amusing complexity.

            Following some of the events in the comics, which simply recount the everyday activities of the protagonist, the movie amounts to something like a biopic. It shows Harvey at his job as a file clerk in a VA hospital, his squalid apartment in a marginal neighborhood in the unlovely city of Cleveland, Ohio --- nobody would dare invent the pervasive drabness of this life --- mingling those scenes with Harvey's history as a comic book character. A meeting and a subsequent friendship with the underground comic artist Robert Crumb leads to the first representation of Harvey's life in pictures. A series of artists later illustrate Harvey's prose, so that he looks rather different at various times, but retains always the gloom, the irascibility, the general misanthropy of the self he writes about, the man he is.

            An autodidact in the great American tradition, Harvey reads widely, collects records, writes jazz reviews, and observes the world around him with a grim expectation of disappointment, failure, or even disaster, and the world seldom disappoints him. While he describes and comments on the general emptiness and tedium of the everyday, the comic panels illustrate and emphasize his words, often displaying a further meaning as a still panel comes to life and the actor steps out of the flat, mostly monochrome comic and into the scarcely more colorful or textured world he inhabits. The picture shows Pekar's gradual success as a writer and character, his co-workers' delight at finding themselves in the comic, his rise to wider fame (thanks to David Letterman), his marriage, his bout with cancer, ending with the current state of his life.

            Paul Giamatti convincingly impersonates Pekar, and though the portrayal tends to remain on one note, the several other representations --- cartoon character, television talk show guest, the man himself --- flesh out some of the full personality of the writer. Giamatti's pot-bellied slump, with his posture forming a sort of parenthesis enclosing the marginal life of his character, his scratchy voice, and his tendency to snarl at everyone and everything may now and then even exaggerate the crankiness of the man while underplaying his undeniable integrity.

            The best parts of the movie, however, remain those many moments that mingle actual characters, the comic books, and the actors, as people keep changing into themselves, in a clever display of genuine metamorphosis. One terrific scene shows Giamatti and a co-star resting in the background of the set, while in the foreground the people they portray, apparently oblivious of their counterparts, carry on their own conversation. In another, Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, attend a play based on his life, which repeats a scene from the film, and they again turn into the actors playing them. Those scenes and sequences nicely summarize the imagination and intelligence of this rare and entertaining film, as original and unconventional as the man himself.

American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, Danny Hoch, Daniel Tay, Robert Pulcini, Maggie Moore, Donal Logue, Molly Shannon, James McCaffrey, Harvey Pekar, Toby Radloff, Joyce Brabner, Danielle Baton, Madlyn Sweeten, David Letterman; written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Little Theatres; Pittsford Plaza Cinema.

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