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American Splendor

Those familiar with the man through his regular appearances on David Letterman’s NBC show in the late 1980s already know how entertaining Pekar can be, and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have wisely made the real Harvey Pekar a centerpiece of the movie, using the man as narrator and Greek chorus to his own life. Combining dramatic narrative, animation and in-studio interviews to great effect, “American Splendor” should find a willing and receptive audience looking for a break from the glut of over-hyped, over-caffeinated and over-produced films clogging the megaplexes during the summer of 2003.

Harvey Pekar is not a pleasant fellow. He’s a whiny, cantankerous, obsessive/compulsive hypochondriac who loves jazz and can’t keep a clean house for the life of him. Not particularly happy to be working in a hospital, he sticks with the job for the good pension plan and he feels at home with his co-workers, many of whom are just as quirky as he. His love of jazz is only equaled by his love of literature. These twin passions will often cause Pekar to spend most weekends scrounging through thrift shops and garage sales, looking for rare treasures other people might consider junk. Unlike most aficionados, Pekar has no method to storing his madness, the many shelves in the living room bowing under the weight of all the books and records set wherever they can fit. The squalor Pekar chooses to live in is the final straw for his wife, who leaves him. However, it is at one of these garage sales where Pekar meets fellow music enthusiast Robert Crumb, who at this moment in time has recently moved to Cleveland as part of his job drawing greeting cards, still a few years away from becoming an underground comic god. Kindred spirits they, Pekar and Crumb become very good friends, even after Crumb’s star continues to rise, moving him away to San Francisco while Pekar continues to schlep along at the hospital. As the 1960s become the 1970s, Pekar is inspired by his friend’s success, and begins to plot out ideas for his own comic, which takes an honest and unflinching look at his mundane life. While his stories and poignant and entertaining, Pekar’s skills at drawing even the simplest stick figures leave much to be desired. Examining Pekar’s rudimentary panels during one of his infrequent visits to Cleveland, Crumb offers that he creates the art for these stories, and thus a new comic title, “American Splendor,” was born.

While the comic industry immediately recognized the start of a major new talent, with a number of top artists lining up for the honor of inking and drawing out his stories, Pekar’s “success” does little to improve his dour outlook on life. It’s been years since he has been with a woman, and his closest local confidant is a co-worker, Toby Radloff, for whom “Revenge of the Nerds” is not just a movie but a life rally cry. But like providence would introduce R. Crumb into his life, the hand of fate would move in mysterious ways again due to the comic.

Joyce Brabner, Delaware comic book shop owner, discovers her absent-minded hippie partner has just sold off the final copy of the latest issue of “American Splendor,” which she had set aside for herself. Unable to obtain another copy through traditional means, Brabner writes to Pekar directly to secure a copy. One letter becomes a series of phone calls, which evolves into an invitation to visit Pekar in Cleveland. The sardonic Pekar and the self-diagnosing hypochondriac Brabner hit it off immediately, with their first date ending with her suggestion they skip the whole courting process and just get married.

Over time, Pekar’s professional life starts to take off, starting with a series of appearance on the David Letterman show. Pekar is the perfect foil for Letterman, and sales of the comic pick up, although not as much as the publishers would expect from such a high profile client. Even Radloff, who has been featuring in a number of “Splendor” stories, picks up some work through MTV. However, with Pekar’s fame rising, Brabner’s spirits fall, sometimes unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time.

Three events will change the pair’s lives: Brabner finding a passion as a peace activist; becoming the guardians of the daughter of one of their artists, who at the time was going through a messy divorce; and Pekar’s being diagnosed cancer. Finding herself mostly shut out of her husband’s life, Brabner decides to write a graphic novel about her experiences dealing with the disease, the award winner “Our Cancer Year.”

What makes “American Splendor” a truly unique experience is how the filmmakers weave numerous devices together to tell their story. How many times will you ever find the real-life subject of a biography telling us, the audience, how much of a crock this whole thing isr After the amazing credit sequence, which is designed to look like a comic book and has Pekar riffing about the moviemaking process, we find Pekar on a white soundstage filled with various curios, speaking with the off-screen director about what it was like to have them make a movie about his life, the first of several such sequences where Pekar is either alone or dealing with his wife, his friend Radloff or the actors that portray them. A dangerous way to play the film out, to be certain, and a decision which could have spelled disaster. But it all works, and works beautifully.

Many filmgoers are familiar with Paul Giamatti, the actor who plays Pekar, even if they aren’t clear on the name. After years of minor work in films like “Singles” and “Donnie Brasco,” Giamatti made his first splash on the public consciousness as Kenny ‘Pig Vomit’ Rushton in “Private Parts,” helping him to get supporting work with some of contemporary cinema’s best directors, including Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Peter Weir, Milos Forman and Tim Burton. But this is his first chance at carrying a film squarely on his shoulders, and Giamatti makes the most of it. His performance is not a direct copy of Harvey Pekar, but more a capturing of the essences that holds up even when both are on screen together. This film won’t make Giamatti a household name, but it will help him get the roles for years to come that will.

To use any adjectives to describe Hope Davis is redundant. Time and time again, she has proven to be the best actress of her generation, and her performance as Brabner is no exception. Even those who know Davis’s work might not recognize her here, as she does become the character.

When all is said and done, I simply loved this movie, and I can’t wait to see it again. “American Splendor” gets an A+ for effort and an A+ for execution.

Rating: A+
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