American Splendor blows through the summer movie season like a cool, refreshing breeze. It was adapted by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who both share writing and directing credits) from the comic book series of the same title by Harvey Pekar, as well as from a later series called Our Cancer Year, which Pekar wrote with his wife, Joyce Brabner, about Pekar’s experience with that disease. Berman and Pulcini’s experience to date has been with documentaries. This is their first shot at a fiction film, and they bring the perspective of documentarians to it in a way that is entirely natural and un-self-conscious.
Paul Giamatti plays Pekar, and Pekar himself narrates the film, drawing pointed attention to the fact that we’re watching a movie. In the midst of one of his narrative passages, the camera will cut to Pekar in the flesh, being interviewed by Berman (off-screen). At one point, Pekar even says, “That guy who’s playing me, he doesn’t even look like me. But that doesn’t really matter anyway.”
Berman and Pulcini open their story in the early 1960s, when Pekar first made the acquaintance of Robert Crumb—better known as R. Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural and a founder of the American underground comics of the 1960s counterculture. (Crumb is played in the film by James Urbaniak, who is Crumb to the very life.) Brought together first by their interest in old records, they find they share a certain acerbic outlook on life. Pekar, who has a nondescript job as a clerk at a Cleveland veterans hospital, begins to vent his frustration and sour discontent in a comic strip of his own—or, rather, in the outline of a comic strip, because his ability as an artist is limited to stick figures and squiggles. But Crumb, already locked in on Pekar’s wavelength, sees the possibilities and offers to illustrate the comic himself. From such odd little connections were the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s created.
Pekar gains a following from American Splendor and even finds a soul mate in Brabner (played by Hope Davis and, like Pekar, appearing in person in the narration sequences). They begin as pen pals, and then she comes out from Delaware to meet him in person. (“Harvey,” says Brabner at that first meeting, “I think we should skip the whole courtship thing and just get married.”)
Pekar also gains a certain amount of Warholian fame when the comic books earn him a series of appearances on David Letterman’s original late-night show on NBC-TV, but the caustic outlook that got him the gig proves his undoing: He can’t keep himself from blowing it. One night—this really happened—Pekar lets his anger and resentment at the essential fakery of television boil over, and he finds himself bounced forever from the Letterman show. (“We’re going to go to a commercial break now,” says Letterman, “and when we come back, guess who won’t be here.”)
Berman and Pulcini’s handling of the Letterman chapter is deft and clever. We see Davis as Brabner sitting in the NBC green room, watching a monitor that shows the real Pekar bantering with the real Letterman (despite what Pekar says, the resemblance between the two is strong enough that the substitution works. Giamatti does indeed look quite a bit like a younger version of Pekar, though a little shorter.) Then, for the big blow-up between the two, the film gives us Giamatti as Pekar, swapping snarls with an unseen Letterman impersonator. The trick works because Berman and Pulcini have established such a freewheeling style, liberally mixing fact and fiction and animated versions of the American Splendor comic books. They clue us in early to the idea that they’re going to do whatever works best for the story, and their instincts are strong enough that they can swap styles at will without putting a foot wrong.
Berman and Pulcini’s open, anything-goes style is complemented by the performances of Giamatti and Davis, who get under the skins of Pekar and Brabner. The film’s style is unorthodox, but so was the comic book, and so is the story. The approach is as unusual as the subject, and the result is as funny and true as Pekar and Crumb’s original comics.