Unlikely Comic Book Hero

'American Splendor' tells the tale of a mundane life with creativity and innovation.

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics made a big to-do by claming that they were adding real characters to comic books by focusing on the private lives of people just like you and me who happened to be able to shoot heat beams from their eyes.

Meanwhile, another group of comic artists started writing books about people like you and me who couldn't shoot heat beams from their eyes. Shockingly, the heat-beam-shooters sold millions more copies and got to have enormous Hollywood blockbuster adaptations made, while the non-heat-beam crowd largely failed to become so wealthy that they could afford to hire illegal immigrants to watch their adopted Cambodian love children.

Nonetheless, the best comic book adaptation ever made turns out to be about one of the non-heat-beam-enhanced humans. American Splendor, based on the comic by Harvey Pekar, wherein he recounts the almost unbelievably mundane events of his life, is so engaging and inventive you won't even mind that he never teams up with Outer Boy and The Spray Gun to stop the Galacto-Cosmic War.

The film begins with a group of kids trick-or-treating in 1950s Cleveland. They're dressed as Batperson and Spiderperson and The Green Republican, except for one little boy in a shabby jacket and pants. "Which comic book character are you supposed to be?" asks a local mother. "I'm Harvey Pekar," says the kid.

Pekar grows up to be a crabby and difficult file clerk who barely scratches by. His wife leaves him; he's unable to clean his apartment; and he has the sense that not only is life passing him by, he's not even on the same highway as life and can't find the map to the access road.

Meeting up with semi-famous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (played with uncanny verisimilitude by James Urbaniak), Pekar decides to write a comic book about his own life, which, over the course of many years, earns him almost no money but a strange amount of fame. In showing how this happened, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini developed a technique that makes American Splendor one of the most inventive and uncategorizable films ever. Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar both play Harvey Pekar, with the dramatic action occasionally breaking for Pekar himself to give commentary. Even the making of the film is included as an event in the film, and many of the people being portrayed make appearances.

This works most stunningly when Giamatti and Judah Friedlander, playing Pekar's friend Toby Radloff, move seamlessly out of a scene and into the background of a bare set, where the real Pekar and Radloff begin talking about the movie. Friedlander and Giamatti watch, giggling, as Pekar and Radloff criticize the film. The actors have so accurately captured the real people that it's hard to tell who's imitating whom.

The movement back and forth between the real people and the actors reaches its peak in recounting Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show. Backstage, Giamatti, as Pekar, has nervous arguments with his wife about selling out and cashing in. As he walks from the green room to the stage, the movie is replaced by actual footage of Pekar's appearance on Letterman, intercut with backstage scenes of Hope Davis as Pekar's wife, Joyce, expressing disgust with Letterman's low-brow pandering.

The actors are uniformly top-notch, and besides the almost surreally excellent Hope Davis (who should have won six or seven Academy Awards for her role in About Schmidt), the finest performance probably comes from Judah Friedlander. When he first appears, his hyper-nerdy Toby seems like a caricature, but when the real Toby starts speaking, it becomes clear that it's the kind of impression that Rich Little would have given his testicles to pull off (or would have pulled off his testicles to have given).

The accuracy of the acting is matched by the care taken in the sets and costumes. Each time period is perfectly captured, and none of it looks like it was made for the movie. It's as if Berman and Pulcini found a thrift store that sold old cities from the '70s and '80s and bought a couple of badly damaged downtown Clevelands, then stopped off to pick up the complete line of clothes rejected by the producers of All in the Family and Chico and the Man for being too much like what real people were wearing in those days.

Most little independent films that have real artistic merit seem to have no chance to appeal to a mass audience, and I wouldn't recommend that the average movie-goer run out and rent Young Idealistic Director's First Stab at Making Something Influenced by the Futurists and Critical Theory Before Selling Out to Direct Angelina Jolie in Breasts of Love, but I can't imagine any half-way intelligent person not enjoying American Splendor. The art-film aspects are so carefully integrated into the story of one bitter loser's life that they manage to enhance the film without becoming its sole focus, and the script and plot have appeal both as high-art and as universal human drama.

So please, round up everyone you know--Grandma, the kids, good old Uncle Moresby and his life partner, Ted--and go see American Splendor. If I'm wrong, and you don't like it, I'll gladly send you a free copy of The Contract With America and one of those little glow sticks that make the rave kids wave about in a pale imitation of actual happiness.