Mixing medias

Film version of American Splendor is a whimsical blend of biography, documentary and animation

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The special zing of the Berman-Pulcini American Splendor comes of its having more than one Harvey Pekar on hand. While Harvey Pekar himself appears in intermittent documentary sequences (and a few clips from The David Letterman Show), the movie’s prevailing reenactments of bits from Pekar’s nominally dowdy life story feature actor Paul Giamatti in the role of Pekar—and to superb effect.

The movie also interpolates comic-strip images of Pekar (drawn by Robert Crumb and others) into the live-action scenes, and the juxtaposition of biographical drama, documentary and cartoon makes us see Giamatti as the latest and perhaps most vivid incarnation in a series of artists’ renderings of the Harvey that Pekar wrote into his grumpily autobiographical comic strips. That Giamatti’s performed Pekar seems more authentically “Harvey” than the documentary glimpses of Pekar just may be the best of the film’s flashing, oddball insights.

As such, the filmic American Splendor is a whimsical tour de force—a mixed-media meditation on identity veering into and out of wisps of romantic comedy in a decidedly unromantic vein. There are tome story threads in all this—Pekar’s friendship and part-time creative partnership with R Crumb, Harvey’s jousts with off-the-wall celebrity, his whirly-gig romance and marriage to his third wife Joyce (who appears as herself but is also played by Hope Davis, dealing funky nuance, in the Giamatti scenes), a bout with cancer, the adoption of a daughter.

But the gruff, gloomy humor of Harvey Pekar, in all of his doggedly durable incarnations, is the presiding force throughout.