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Sweet misery

Paul Giamatti plays curmudgeonly comics writer Harvey Pekar with lyrical desperation in 'American Splendor.'

August 15, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

The sweet-and-sour independent movie "American Splendor" traces the tough, low-rent times of one Harvey Pekar -- file clerk, jazz aficionado, curmudgeon supreme, friend of comic book legend Robert Crumb and nemesis of late-night host David Letterman. For the past three decades, the Cleveland native and various illustrators have collaborated on a mordantly amusing comic, also known as "American Splendor," that details his encounters with feckless women, boring jobs, illness and his own anguish. Most comic books are about supermen battling evil; Pekar's are about a deeply ordinary man facing down a more familiar devil -- the horror of everyday life.

Some legends are born; others are drawn. Now with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's biographical movie about Pekar, the writer's lumpen projection has taken on yet new shapes. There are a couple of animated Harveys, each representing a different illustrator's interpretation. There's the man himself plopped on a sound stage and talking about whether the movie's got him and his take on things right (he says yes and no).

Last, there's the fictional, live-action character played with lyrical desperation by Paul Giamatti. It's no surprise, of course, that only the real Pekar comes close to the comic's raw, spiky complexity, but Giamatti's performance is so good -- and easier to stomach in long stretches than his pen-and-ink analogue -- that it almost makes up for everything that's been lost in translation.

In the early 1970s, fired up by Crumb's success in underground comics and encroachments on the mainstream with characters like Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, Pekar decided to try his hand at the genre. A one-time obsessive record collector -- he once bought a pair of 50-cent used shoes so he could spend all his money on platters -- stuck in dead-end jobs that didn't tap his creativity, he was looking for a means of personal expression. He couldn't actually draw beyond the most rudimentary stick figure, but it didn't matter. His stories tickled his friend, who brought Pekar to poignantly sweaty plebeian life with his undulating lines and genius for caricature. Crumb's patronage helped turn Pekar into a small cult and in the years since other artists have put his Everyman into figurative form. Giamatti looks nothing like Pekar either in person or in his various cartoon guises, but in a warmly sympathetic performance he brings the character to grubby, soulful life. Using his jumpy eyebrows as accent marks, the actor succeeds in conveying Pekar's congenital unhappiness, but because the script greatly tones Harvey down, Giamatti plays the character more sweet than sour, almost puckish. Pekar can be shockingly rude in the comic and certainly before he met his current wife, Joyce (Hope Davis in the film), he came across as a man profoundly in touch with his misery. Using his rounded face and lopsided mouth -- when he tries to smile, his lips seem to flop over, as if they'd forgotten how -- Giamatti fashions a gentler side of Harvey, imbuing him with tenderness that Pekar himself hasn't often allowed.

The disparity of Pekar's looks, moods and temperaments in the comic inspires one of the funniest bits in the movie, when Joyce first meets Harvey. A comic book store owner, she originally wrote to Pekar looking to buy a sold-out issue. One thing led to another and eventually they arranged to hook up. She had never seen a photograph of Pekar and had no idea what to expect: Depending on who's drawing him, Pekar looks hapless, tortured, enraged, exasperated, somewhat presentable or ferociously ugly. He's also often drawn sweating bullets and wearing a plush coat of body hair; in earlier years, he was sometimes seen having lonely sex (occasionally with himself) and sometimes violently cursing the women who'd rejected him.

Standing in the train terminal, Joyce anxiously scans the crowd and sees cartoon Harveys lying in wait, alternately suave (well, almost) and swarthy. Then the live-action Harvey shuffles up, blurts out he's had a vasectomy, and before you can say, "Get these people some anti-depressants," they're hitched.

Berman and Pulcini, the husband-and wife team who directed and co-wrote the film, have two feature documentaries to their credit, one about the closing of the restaurant Chasen's, the other about the multimedia cemetery Hollywood Forever. In "American Splendor," they mix a gently fictionalized story with talking-head interviews, primarily with the real Pekar and some of the people who appear in his comics. Along with Giamatti, the interviews are the best part of the movie, but they're gummed up by the filmmakers' pseudo-Brechtian diddling. In one scene, Giamatti walks out of the shot, sits next to the actor playing Harvey's friend, Toby (a wonderful Judah Friedlander), and proceeds to watch the real Harvey talk to the real Toby. By now breaking the fourth wall is pretty tired stuff, especially when it comes off as just a stylistic tic.

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