Wednesday, September 27, 2023

American Splendor

American Splendor Poster

(2003) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; Written by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Shari Springer Berman; Starring: Paul Giamatti, Shari Springer Berman, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff, Earl Billings and James Urbaniak; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****½  

“Okay, this guy here, he’s our man. All grown up and going nowhere. Always a pretty scholarly cat. He never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and is now knee-deep in a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You got the wrong movie.” – Harvey Pekar

The Real Harvey Pekar

Life is messy. It can’t be contained in the panels of a comic book page, depicted in two dimensions, or condensed into thought bubbles. Between its many ups and downs, there’s a bunch of monotonous stuff in the middle. There’s no swift resolution to our conflicts like a 30-minute sitcom episode, nor is there a superhero descending from the skies to set things right. Underground comic writer Harvey Pekar instinctively understood this when he set out to write American Splendor, chronicling his everyday exploits as an ordinary file clerk, working in a Cleveland veterans’ hospital. Sure, it didn’t have quite the pizzazz of Batman, Fantastic Four, or some other fantasy-oriented comic, but it possessed something that none of those comics had – relatability. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini set out to show us the story behind the story about Pekar’s life. The result is part fiction, part fact, narrated by Mr. Pekar himself (who also appears with many of the real-life people who became the subject of his comics).

Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar

Paul Giamatti, in the unexpected role of a lifetime, plays Harvey Pekar, full-time file clerk at Cleveland Veterans Hospital, part-time comic book writer and jazz critic. While Pekar appeared to be a misanthropic curmudgeon to most of the world, Giamatti’s insightful, sympathetic performance proves his character to be much more. Beneath Pekar’s gruff exterior is an intelligent, multi-faceted individual – angry yet sensitive, caustic yet vulnerable. His holistic approach captures Pekar’s specific gait, mannerisms, and facial expressions, conveying a perennial mixture of disgust and resigned world-weariness. Giamatti brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role, especially when the film delves into Pekar’s struggle with illness (which was chronicled in Pekar and Brabner’s graphic novel, Our Cancer Year).

Harvey, Joyce and Toby

American Splendor introduces us to the colorful people in Pekar’s life (some of whom are co-workers) who became characters in his stories. In the early ‘60s, he meets the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was just getting starting off with his underground comics. As portrayed by James Urbaniak, Crumb (who later illustrated some of Pekar’s stories) is a socially awkward, straw-hat-wearing eccentric, who connects with Pekar over a shared love of obscure vintage jazz records. Pekar meets his match with his soulmate and third wife, Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), who shares his gloomy outlook (“I find most American cities to be depressing in the same way.”) yet somehow manages to be his ray of sunshine. With a fondness for pop psychology, she diagnoses everyone in her husband’s life, starting with Pekar’s co-worker and self-professed nerd, Toby Radloff.* Judah Friedlander’s spot-on impersonation of Radloff is at once hilarious and poignant, as an optimistic counterpoint to Pekar’s cynicism. Earl Billings is also excellent, in a small but substantive role as another co-worker, the literate and paranoid Mr. Boats. Pekar’s wife and co-workers could be played exclusively for laughs, but that would be far too reductive. Instead, they come across as real people, not caricatures, who in their own unique ways make Pekar’s wife worth living. 

* Fun Fact #1: Besides his appearances on MTV, some die-hard horror fans might remember him as the titular character from Troma’s direct-to-video wonders, Killer Nerd (1991) and Bride of Killer Nerd (1992).

Harvey's Monologue

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s inventive storytelling continually blurs the line between the real and comic worlds. Pekar becomes immersed in a live-action comic book as he delivers a monologue about finding, much to his surprise, that there were three other men who shared his name in Cleveland alone. In contrast to the filmed autobiographical sequences,* the segments with the real-life Pekar and company were shot on video, creating a reality that somehow seems less real than the dramatized footage.   

* Fun Fact #2: According to co-director Robert Pulcini, the film stock was flashed (a process which reduces the contrast and color saturation) to produce a grainy, washed-out appearance. Later in the movie, when Pekar is given a clean bill of health, Pulcini stopped flashing the film stock, imparting more clarity and color to the image.

American Splendor Comic

Pekar’s excessively low tolerance for nonsense seemed to be at odds with his brief dalliance as an unlikely TV mini-celebrity in the 1980s, with his multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman.* His grumpy, cantankerous nature quickly becomes comic gold for Letterman, as the perfect foil for the talk show host’s barbs. Although Pekar knows he’s being exploited (much to the chagrin of Brabner), he considers it an equitable trade for getting publicity for his comic. His new-found fame reaches a pinnacle when he and Brabner fly to Los Angeles to watch a play about their life in Cleveland,** but exploitation proves to have its limits for Pekar. During his final guest appearance with Letterman, he strays from his usual subject matter, ranting about NBC and its connection to parent company, General Electric. 

* Fun Fact #3: The animal handler waiting in the wings in NBC’s Green Room was played by the then-current (2003) director of the Columbus Zoo, a position formerly held by frequent Letterman guest, Jack Hanna. The filmmakers also considered Tony Randall and John Waters for the role. 

** Fun Fact #4: In the play within a movie, SNL alumnus Molly Shannon plays Brabner.

Comic Panel - "Now there's a reliable disappointment."

Harvey Pekar’s underground success demonstrated how the seemingly mundane goings-on of an ordinary working-class schmoe could still captivate. Anyone who’s had to work to earn a living could understand the appeal of American Splendor. For those who have a burning passion but can’t afford to quit their day jobs, this movie is for you. Pekar is a superhero for the rest of us, extolling the virtues of getting through the day, no matter how soul-crushing or tedious it might be.


  1. After you're thoroughly entertaining and informative review, Barry, I have two questions I must ask myself.

    Why haven't I seen American splendor?

    How have I not heard of Killer Nerd and it's sequel until now?

    I must seek out these answers as soon as possible. Thank you for enlightening me! 😃

    1. Thanks a million, John! It's been ages since I've seen Killer Nerd, but I still remember a quote from it, "How can I accentuate the positive when there's not one iota to accentuate?" And oh, you must see American Splendor. I can't recommend it highly enough! :)