With an X-Man or a Hulk or a Daredevil hogging half of the major movie releases this year, one would never expect a depressed filing clerk named Harvey Pekar to hold any sway on audience fascination. Unlike the X-Men, Harvey has little stock in the raging mutant/human political battle. Unlike the Hulk, his anger does not swell his belt size ten-fold. And unlike Daredevil, he is not a blind man with Olympic-caliber acrobatic skills.
But in “American Splendor,” Harvey holds his own with those other cinematic superheroes with an entirely different and unusual power: he is vividly, hilariously and poignantly human.
Which does not mean he is real. Harvey, as embodied by the brilliant Paul Giamatti ’89, is a comic book character created by a real underground comic book writer named Harvey Pekar. Harvey’s creation captures the regular moments of everyday life — the slow checkout lines and the odd coworkers and the very personal battles with life threatening diseases. He uses the comic book to fantasize the ordinary person. He recreates himself on the page as the American everyman.
The filmmakers tap into the heart of Pekar’s comics very well. In fact, not in recent memory has a film so deftly translated its source material on to the screen. From the very beginning in the opening credits, we are acutely aware of the real/fantasy worlds that we are entering. Harvey walks through the residential Cleveland streets inside a comic book strip. The camera weaves from an outside shot of a comic strip (with Giamatti walking through animated frames) to an inside look at the real world inside the strip with nifty visual skill.
The film strengthens this real world/comic world dichotomy by presenting the actual Harvey Pekar as a character in the film version of his life — and he even interacts with his movie counterpart, played by Giamatti. Pekar, at key moments in the story, narrates the movie with candid discussions of his personal experiences. The introduction of the real Harvey into the film narrative is just plain brilliant. With this bold stroke, “American Splendor,” more than any other comic book movie, is in fact a “comic book movie.” Just like the stories in the comic, the film narrative itself seems to spin from Harvey’s own creativity.
Our ability to picture the real Harvey also allows us to better appreciate Giamatti’s skilled performance. Giamatti plays the comic book hero Harvey with a unique physicality that mimics in no way the real man. He slouches and stomps through life, eye brows burrowed, a perpetual frown radiating neuroses and anger. But Giamatti never lets his portrayal descend into caricature. He plays a fully rounded, emotionally identifiable human being that is also a cartoon. It is a stunning accomplishment.
Despite its comic-book structure, “American Splendor” is not the comic book itself. It is in many ways a very standard “A Beautiful Mind”-meets-“Gandhi” biopic that embraces the norms of the genre: the protagonist’s struggle, his attempt to find his voice in the world, his triumph, and the love that allows him to persevere. But because Harvey Pekar is such an unusual man with such a bizarre life (and because of the picture’s style and structure), the same old story feels fresh and thrilling.
Most notably, the love story between Harvey and Joyce (a tour-de-force comic performance by Hope Davis) is hardly your typical inspiration-from-the-heart arch. After their first kiss, fireworks do not go off and music does not swell. Joyce immediately runs to the bathroom to vomit. But it is still evident throughout the movie that their love is real. “American Splendor” is a smart enough film to shake the genre’s conventions without undermining them completely.