In his overwrought but thoroughly insightful piece in the July/August issue of Film Comment, critic Howard Hampton struck a nerve with hipster filmgoers everywhere who groove on the snide irony of films featuring misanthropes like Pekar, or the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman depiction of Kaufman in Adaptation, and almost all things Coen Brothers. While it's an unnecessarily vicious attack that overlooks many of these films' strengths, Hampton's main point is almost more revealing than the films he's critiquing: misanthropy, especially when tailored so tidily, often does little more than make us feel smug and superior.
This is a bitterly swallowed pill for a film critic; after all, not too many critics were exactly the star quarterback in high school, if you get my drift. So yes, dorks have a fondness for other dorks, but when the line blurs between sympathy and superiority, it makes one wonder.
That's what makes American Splendor such a dicey proposition to consider as it cheekily explores the life and times of underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar. When someone so earthy and cranky and generally smelly is packaged as a loveable galloot, and when his actual passions (jazz music, for example) get barely a nod, then there's a whiff of hypocrisy floating about. The whole point of cutting-edge filmmaking is to swim outside the waters of the mainstream, especially when depicting a non-conformist. But, when a view from a distant perch reveals narrative propulsion fueled by romance, life-threatening illness and a cute little orphan, just how far underground are we?
Make no mistake, though; American Splendor is a hilarious movie, aided by a tic-flicking performance by everyman character actor Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his almost-equally dysfunctional wife, Joyce Brabner. With comic-book framing by filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Giamatti and Davis as Pekar and Brabner are stories within a story, just as the actual comic book American Splendor was Pekar's not-so-fictionalized life within a life. It's a neat trick, with the real-life Pekar and Brabner narrating themselves and each other in interviews with an off-camera Berman sometimes on a previously used set as if during downtime between takes, sometimes as voice-over for the fictionalized version. Comic-book devices like panel narratives and bubble thoughts are inlaid on scenes, or real American Splendor frames are used whole. As opposed to the excellent (and superior) Ghost World, we have a blending of worlds here.
With this use of fiction/non-fiction/fiction, we follow Pekar schlepping through an almost non-life as a file clerk at a V.A. hospital, twice-divorced, angrily enduring the indignities of everyday life in America: stuck behind old ladies at the grocery, looking at himself in the mirror, etc. That he endures this in Cleveland -- as much a punchline of a city as any -- in all its earth tones and grays would be more interesting if Berman and Pulcini had actually shown that it was Cleveland and not just any other grimy metropolis. Regardless, Pekar runs into underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb, fittingly enough while scrounging for jazz and blues records at yard sale, and they become friends. Crumb becomes something of a cult hero, and Pekar realizes that life is passing him by, so he pitches Crumb the idea for American Splendor.
From there, Pekar's life takes off, as best this life can: meeting his soul mate in Joyce Brabner, the appearances on David Letterman's show (shown in their original broadcast form until his last appearance), a successful battle with cancer, and ultimately the cobbling together of a family.
Giamatti's performance is a bit of a minor triumph. He's spent years as a character playing everyman characters (The Negotiator, The Truman Show). It's odd that he wasn't previously able to show his true comic gifts until his hilarious turn as an orangutan in Tim Burton's silly remake of Planet of the Apes (with the classically ironic delivery of the line, "Can't we all just get along?"). Which makes a perfect segue to Pekar, because there's a lot of hairy ape about him, and so it's probably no coincidence that Giamatti spends half the film grunting and scratching his head and neck.
Davis might be the real winner, though. Her nasal monotone, a dead ringer for the true-life Brabner, virtually sings in her annoyance with Pekar's persistent negativism. (Not that she's a ray of sunshine.) She almost steals the movie in a hilarious scene where she and Pekar's uber-nerd co-worker Marty (Danny Hoch) gush over the artistic merit of Revenge of the Nerds ("It transported me to another place!") while Pekar rolls his eyes.
Funny, yes. Cutting edge? Hardly.