Long before reality TV — before we all became addicted to the ongoing sagas of ordinary people a la MTV's Real World, Survivor and those 24-hour dorm-room surveillance cams that document co-eds clipping their toenails — there was Harvey Pekar.
Like most of us, Harvey isn't anything particularly special. He's certainly no hero and barely even the hero of his own life. And yet, this rumpled, cranky, middle-aged file clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital has been the inspiration for a long-running series of critically acclaimed, highly unconventional comic books, a play, and now a fascinating new film.
All of these projects go by the same name: American Splendor. If the title seems to drip irony, that's because there's plenty of it.
Then again, on at least one of the many other levels on which American Splendor operates, the movie invites us into a zone that's probably as irony-free as any. American Splendor is an undeniably odd, multifaceted project that all but demands the postmodernist seal of approval, but it's also surprisingly open, honest and sincere about what it's up to, sometimes almost to a fault.
The movie American Splendor, like the comic book American Splendor, is about real life in all its drab, dreary, petty glory, although it's also about the ways that life sometimes transcends its own mundane details and becomes something sublime. At the same time, American Splendor never strays far from being about the ways that life is like a cartoon, a series of isolated moments that can be reduced to a sequence of panel drawings in search of a half-way decent punchline.
Mostly, though, the movie is about Harvey Pekar.
The thing about Harvey is that he's a guy who really seems to want to believe in all that truth and beauty and doing the right thing stuff, but he's just too damned cynical about, well, everything, including his own cynicism. Harvey — both the real-life Harvey and the representations of Harvey we see in the comic books and in the movie (where he's portrayed brilliantly by Paul Giamatti) — demands complete honesty but doesn't really expect much beyond lies, mediocrity and boredom. He's the sort of guy who gets up in the morning and greets his reflection in the mirror with a barely amused, "Now there's a reliable disappointment."
We first meet Harvey as his train wreck of a second marriage is derailing, and his voice has been reduced to a barely audible croak from a lifetime of ranting and kvetching. When he isn't punching the clock at the VA hospital, Harvey's generally stewing in his own juices in his cluttered rat trap of an apartment or haunting thrift stores and garage sales in search of the rare old 78 RPM jazz and blues records he obsessively collects. It's at one of these very garage sales, back in 1962, where we see Harvey meet a fellow collector and struggling cartoonist named R. Crumb.
Crumb eventually becomes a famous pen-wielding iconoclast, and Harvey convinces him to collaborate on a series of illustrated stories dedicated to Pekar's notion that comics can be an art form, "like those movies from France," where real art is found not in the idealized but in the ordinary. The strange little comics that result — darkly humorous, verite slices based on Pekar's daily grind — come to be known as, you guessed it, American Splendor.
The comic-book format was a wonderful medium for Harvey's unique worldview, and the movie American Splendor is remarkably faithful to that worldview and to the comic-book format that first gave it a public voice. The movie reconfigures and expands on both in a way that makes it clear that, depending upon your point of view and the whims of a given moment, Pekar is both larger and smaller than life. Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, a husband-wife team long enamoured of the American Splendor comics, have a ball communicating all the rich contradictions in the material. The running joke of the movie, as in the comics, is that, as the "star of the show," Harvey inevitably becomes some sort of pop culture icon, even as he's clearly just an ordinary guy, frequently unpleasant and ultimately a disposable figure of fun.
The filmmakers pull out all the stops with this material, incorporating stylistic devices borrowed from comic books, blending live action and cartoons, and even breaking the fourth wall from time to time to offer us the real-life Harvey and company commenting on the actors playing them onscreen. It's all very meta-meta, of course, but the film's multilayered levels of reality aren't just some coldly cerebral pomo experiment; they actually help explain what we're seeing, and make perfect sense as populist entertainment. American Splendor is more heart than head-trip, and all the movie's elaborate self-reflexivity is really just a means to an end.
Unfortunately, that end isn't quite as edifying as the beginning. The film's second half veers a wee bit too close to conventional movie-movie territory, as the fractured but incisive observations of American Splendor's first hour give way to what is, for most extents and purposes, a love story, complete with beginning, middle and end. Almost imperceptibly, the movie's tone edges from wry to wacky-but-borderline-sentimental as the focus shifts to Pekar's somewhat dysfunctional but fundamentally loving relationship with the woman who becomes his third (and current) wife. Hope Davis is fine as the deeply neurotic, third Mrs. Pekar (looking a lot like Joyce Carol Oates in a brunette wig and oversize glasses that dominate her face), but the emphasis given her character threatens to transform the movie into a slightly quirkier Annie Hall love match. The more the movie immerses itself in the nuts and bolts of a sustained story (of the couple's ups and downs), the more it loses its crucial, unpredictable energy. American Splendor stops just short of offering us easy closure and some sort of obligatory redemption for Harvey but, by the film's final moments, it's walking a pretty thin line.
Still, for most of its running time, American Splendor is the real thing. It's not always a comfortable fit, but the movie gets us deep into the head and under the skin of its main character, illuminating and immortalizing the dingiest corners of his reality even as it playfully calls into question the value of that very process. It's all part of the movie's celebration and wicked deconstruction of the private-life-made-public, the latest manifestation of a pop culture in which Harvey and all the rest of us simultaneously revel and are repelled by.
Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.