“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” says the flinty, long-suffering Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” based on the writer’s autobiographical comic book series. For 27 years now, Pekar has been picking apart the complexities of his own ordinary life—his neurotic struggles with home, marriage and work—and committing them to comic book form.
Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s movie can’t fairly be summed up as an adaptation of Pekar’s celebrated comic books. True, there are entire vignettes that have been lifted from their pages and brought to screen. But “Splendor” is feistier than that, culling together aspects of documentary and biopic, with dashes of animation, to arrive at a truly multi-faceted portrait of its hero. It’s an inspired way for these hitherto documentary filmmakers to unravel Pekar’s knotty persona, beginning with his 60s-era days as a jazz critic and frustrated file clerk at a Cleveland veterans’ hospital (a job from which he retired two years ago) to his gradual emergence as a cult comic-folk hero.
While Pekar writes his comics, he has always handed drawing duties over to an assortment of artists over the years. Hence, his illustrated incarnations have varied from artist to artist, ranging from the harried, sinister-looking Pekar of Robert Crumb to the more realistic, clean-cut renderings by Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm. Berman and Pulcini exploit that “Hall of Mirrors” aspect of Pekar’s persona, often using these artists’ disparate styles in animated form to enliven their scenes. Indeed “Splendor’s” visual design, with its comic book flair, is a knockout alongside the moody brilliance of Terry Stacey’s cinematography.
Keeping all this spinning is a pair of performances by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, playing Pekar’s wife, Joyce. More than just looking their parts—Giamatti with his indignant scowl and Davis with her stoic face and owlish glasses—they inhabit them wonderfully. They dig deep into their characters, finding lonely, passionate souls yearning for companionship and purpose. Grounding “Splendor’s” fretfully funny narrative are the real-life Pekar’s narration and interviews with him and Joyce. They not only reveal the couple’s robust humor and intelligence but also give the movie a dash of self-referential whimsy—an inspired cinematic equivalent to the postmodern self-referencing of Pekar’s own material.
Berman and Pulcini’s movie briskly guides us through the terrain of Pekar’s life, but here’s where “Splendor” stumbles a bit. Wrapped up in charting the main beats and turns of Pekar’s biography, it loses the inherent melancholy of Pekar’s work, the despair and dread that fills his work’s quietest moments. It gets the mood right, but never slows enough to explore its richly existential landscape—the cynical, ultimately humanist, musings at the heart of Pekar’s comic manifestos.
Written/Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander, Jesse Perez