American Splendor Is an Ode to the Everyman
By Bradford William Davis
Paul Giamatti stars in this heartfelt biopic about a crabby writer uniquely in touch with the misunderstood.
In an early scene in American Splendor, aspiring comic book writer Harvey Pekar casts his vision for using an ordinary subject to elevate the quality of an ordinary comic. In the eponymous American Splendor comic and film, that ordinary subject is himself.
“No idealized shit. No phony bullshit. The real thing, y’know?” Pekar explains to Bob Crumb (James Urbaniak), his eventual artist and collaborator. Rather than depict stories about hyper-stylized superheroes or talking animals common to the medium, his semi-autobiographical American Splendor series lived in the mundane because as Paul Giamatti’s Pekar puts it, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
Pekar himself was an everyman, albeit a quirky and prickly one. He dropped out of college, worked a dead-end job as a file clerk for a VA hospital, and as you might surmise by the casting, was not especially tall, fit or stately. American Splendor’s focused, straight-forward camera work and muted colors (no doubt aided by filming in the blue-collar streets of Cleveland, Pekar’s hometown) embodies Crumb’s artistic style and Pekar’s narrative. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini frequently cut from biopic reenactments to interviews with the real life Pekar and his subjects, occasionally repurposing his reflections as movie narration. Berman conducts the documentary-style conversations in a similarly under-produced environment: The sets for these interviews are empty, all-white and absent of dramatic lighting or angles. All around, the movie emphasizes an inventive yet minimalist aesthetic, even though it’s inherently about people likely to roll their eyes at the pretentiousness of a phrase like “minimalist aesthetic.”
The film shines when it’s spotlighting Pekar’s straightforward examination of the working class. That examination starts with Harvey. Rude, pessimistic, and unromantic, he isn’t shy in his art or his personal life. For example, Harvey’s first words upon meeting his soon-to-be wife, activist and collaborator Joyce Brabner (an immaculate Hope Davis): “You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy.” This is a Harvey Pekar first date.
Giamatti snarls his lines with a raspy whisper throughout much of the first act because Pekar’s temper was so bad, he had screamed enough to damage his vocal chords. When Harvey proclaimed, “No idealized shit,” he meant it.
Harvey’s daily affairs and the people in his life — ranging from awkward, nerdy coworkers to (in Harvey’s estimation) miserly old ladies clogging up the grocery line — become inspiration for his American Splendor comics. The inherently uneventful are events he appropriates for his stories. Crumbs caricatures, like Harvey’s dialogue aren’t flattering. But the comics resonate because above all, they’re honest.
American Splendor is sarcastic and cynical, yet sentimental and sincere, which is to say it’s faithful to its source material. Most of all, it captures why Harvey’s art represented its ordinary subjects better than most: Harvey loved them, was one of them, and portrayed them in a way that humorized, yet dignified their lives. Watching American Splendor captures why his comics struck a chord.