Paul Giamatti will be the first to tell you that “whatever the Ben Afflecks and Tom Cruises of the world have, I don’t have it.” He has made his name as a character actor, playing such supporting roles as Bob Zmuda in “Man on the Moon” and the ever-lovable Pig Vomit in the Howard Stern biopic “Private Parts.”
But to many of us — including directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini — Giamatti has stolen enough scenes to make us anticipate seeing his name on a cast list… and to wonder why the spotlight has never been entirely pointed in his direction. And according to the directors, as soon as Giamatti came in and read for the part of Harvey Pekar, there was no question that this was the right man for the lead role in their new biopic, “American Splendor”. Berman and Pulcini have expressed the hope that this performance can do for Giamatti’s career what Ernest Borgnine’s portrayal of another “regular guy”, Marty Piletti, did for his. And the twitchy, neurotic Pekar also ends up being the type of “showy” part that tends to attract attention from the folks who reward these things.
The “American Splendor” comic book has been published for over 25 years now, and attempts have been made to bring it to the big screen for nearly as long. But we’re not talking “Superman” or “Batman” here. The highly autobiographical “American Splendor” comic focuses relentlessly on ordinary moments in the ordinary life of an ordinary guy — Pekar himself, who never quit the day job as a Veterans’ Administration hospital file clerk that he held for 35 years. This lack of Hollywood dramatics made the material difficult to capture in a film. Berman and Pulcini, whose prior directorial experience had been with documentary features (“Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasens”, “The Young and the Dead”), feel that their background in that genre aided them piece together a story out of “mundane moments.”
Another issue that any prospective filmmaker had to “overcome” was the insistence of the subject himself on a realistic, warts-and-all portrayal. Anyone who remembers Pekar’s final appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” — in which he converted himself from goofy regular guest to permanent pariah by discoursing on the conflicts of interest involved in NBC’s corporate ownership — can attest to the fact that this is a guy who resists being pigeonholed or caricaturized.
That “Letterman” appearance made enough of an impact on Giamatti that, when he was informed about the “American Splendor” project, it was the memory that sparked his interest in the role. He also went back and scrutinized the comics, with which he had formerly had a nodding acquaintance. Giamatti says that he was “even able to get physical stuff” from the wildly divergent ways in which each of Pekar’s artists depicted their protagonist.
Still, when Giamatti met Pekar for the first time “two or three days before shooting started”, he had to assimilate the real-life information very quickly into his portrayal… all under the eye of the man himself, who appears in the film at regular intervals to comment on the action. Admittedly, that eye was not terribly watchful — Giamatti attests that on set, “Harvey was all about the free donuts”, while Pulcini recounts the tale of Pekar falling asleep on one of the couches in his cinematic “apartment.” However Giamatti derived insight into the character, his “mimicry” (as the actor himself put it) of Pekar is extraordinary. An already-existing physical resemblance is made into a virtual simulacrum when Giamatti adopts the pronounced slouch, gravelly voice, and innumerable nervous mannerisms of the now 64-year-old writer.
Giamatti has been so far from a leading man throughout his career that “American Splendor” contains his first on-screen kiss. (Considering that his co-star is Hope Davis, it was probably worth the wait.) Given Giamatti’s history as a character actor, it might be ironic if he himself were upstaged by one of his supporting cast. But Judah Friedlander’s portrayal of Harvey’s equally unusual co-worker and friend, Toby Radloff, provides many of “American Splendor”‘s funniest and most memorable moments. Radloff himself was discovered as an actor as a result of Pekar’s “Letterman” appearances. His credits — the “Genuine Nerd” in MTV commercials, and starring roles in “Killer Nerd” and “Bride of Killer Nerd” (currently being distributed by Troma Films, for whom, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to quickly mention that our publisher is employed by) — should give you a clear idea of the type of guy he is. The gut that badly needs sucking in, the old-school mullet, the coke-bottle-bottom glasses, the droning voice, the perfect sentence structure… it’s all there. Radloff himself confirms that Friedlander has his “mannerisms, looks and voice down pat.”
We know that Friedlander and Giamatti are acting. The more intriguing question is whether Radloff and Pekar are acting. Has Radloff really reached a level so far beyond self-consciousness that he can cite “Revenge of the Nerds” — a movie which, as “American Splendor” recounts, he has seen about 40 times — as one of his life’s seminal events without any irony? (By the way, even Radloff grants that “the sequels were so-so”). As for Pekar, the directors effectively incorporate the different “cartoon Harveys” drawn by different artists into the film, attempting to illustrate the various aspects of their protagonist. When you put together the views from all angles, what composite image do you get? Might it indeed be something very much like the “grumpy but lovable” image that Letterman pushed on him, and that he resisted as a simplification?
The actors and directors in “American Splendor” don’t claim to have answers or explanations. They merely hold the mirror up to real people, and the result is one of the year’s finest films so far.