American Splendor tells the true tale of hero-of-the-average, Harvey Pekar, a man wasting his life away as a hospital file clerk with no money, barely staying afloat in his own misery. A chance meeting with the then unknown Robert Crumb turns things around as the two start up American Splendor, a comic book based on Pekar’s day-to-day banalities. Pekar takes on the writing duties, since he can barely render a stick figure, while Crumb illustrates (later, we see a different artist on nearly each issue). The comic is a hit with critics (though not so much financially) and goes on to gain Pekar acclaim as a writer and a visionary. Even after over a year’s worth of return appearances on Letterman, praise from the critics and a growing fan base, Harvey still only enjoys merely a brush with stardom.
Don’t feel too bad though, he has this stunning film to make him feel better. I could sing of the genius that is Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Harvey Pekar for days. He slouches his way through the film with a perpetual grimace as hardship after heartbreak crash down upon him (not unlike another tortured hero, Frank Grimes). We rarely see this portrayed so accurately, if at all. That’s because everything in Hollywood is airbrushed for us. Harvey Perkar isn’t sexy, and he isn’t too much of a thinker, but he is the average man. These are the real problems people have to go through. We end up really empathizing with Harvey, but are removed from his sorrows (much the same way he is removed from his own life due to his comic based upon it), making it OK to laugh at his plight.
The filmmakers effectively throw in real footage of commentary from Pekar and friends taped in tandem with the film, discussing the impact of his comic and the film you are watching, creating a unique line of storytelling showing the audience the real vs. the acted while uncovering the seemingly larger than life events and characters (Toby, for instance). But, perhaps the film’s best parts are in the details; the way Pekar’s shirts never seemed to be ironed (or washed for that matter) and the way in which he can appear to be smiling even beneath a staunch scowl.