Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini / Screenplay: Berman, Pulcini & Harvey Pekar & Joyce Brabner / Editing: Robert Pulcini / DP: Terry Stacey / Music: Mark Suozzo
Cast: Paul Giamatti / Harvey Pekar / Earl Billings / James Urbaniak / Judah Friedlander / Hope Davis / Madylin Sweeten
The Silver-Linings Comic-Book…
I’ll go out on a limb here and start with the following observation: that 99% of all readers of this review have never heard of either Harvey Pekar or his comic-book series American Splendor.
Am I right? Almost certainly.
I like to think of that 1% as being either too hip, ironic or both to surf the net in the first place. Instead, they’re inhabiting a smoky, dimly-lit corner somewhere from which to gripe at the world passing them by…
Which, essentially, is what Harvey did: writing observational vignettes lifted from his mundane, everyday life that were then illustrated and compiled into comic-books. He’s portrayed (accurately, it turns-out) as a flinty, diffident ball of frustration & anger, who’s trials & tribulations lend him a kind of admirable gravitas when channelled through his art.
An unusual, some might think difficult subject for a feature-length biopic, the married directing & writing team of Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, acknowledged the problems head-on, in divesting themselves of conventional form and structure. Whilst chronological flow is – more or less – observed, their film isn’t afraid to mix-up the narrative devices used to tell Harvey’s story. The result, is playful, loose and flushed with vindication at the choices made: as brave and avant-garde in its execution, as Harvey’s own comic-book was back in the day.
Their film begins at Halloween, 1950, with a young Harvey waiting in-line with other kids on a neighbour’s porch, in anticipation of receiving treats. However, where all the others are in costume of one kind or another, Harvey stands-out in normal attire. His very diffidence – his crankiness – is exposed when he refuses to answer questions from the would-be donor, preferring instead, to stomp-off in high dudgeon. Despite myself, I began chuckling over what I was seeing: aren’t biopics supposed to be of sympathetic, engaging subjects who can carry a movie?
The title sequence follows, using a succession of comic-strip panels, including text & footage of the adult Harvey (Paul Giamatti) walking through a drab, sunless neighbourhood of Cleveland as if observing ‘life’ in the rust-belt. We are being asked to go along for the ride that follows, in the company of this man; someone who, even this early, looks like he should have a personal raincloud drifting above his head…
Which is the point. When faced with someone THIS misanthropic, our interpretation veers between being drained and being enriched. We’re watching a REAL unwitting superhero at-work. Harvey might not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he wouldn’t even if he could, as he’d only moan about the vertigo…
The filmmakers then play a switch on us – the audience – by cutting to a brightly-lit white set (that suggests a blank sheet of cartoonist’s Bristol Board), in which the real Harvey Pekar is being interviewed by co-Director Berman: the question under consideration being ‘Did you read the script before shooting?’ His answer (‘not really’) segues to another leap in time, from 1950 – to the present – now back to 1975. Harvey (Giamatti, now) has lost his voice due to nodules on his vocal chords and is with his GP, who’s recommending three months of silence. Harvey’s response? That his ‘old lady’ will leave him… Sure enough, when he returns to his murky, dingy apartment, we find the first Mrs Pekar stuffing clothes into a bag: and all Harvey can do, is plead-wheeze her to stay…
So far, then, so brave. The filmmakers have found a way to tell this story with real eloquence and economy as befits its limited budget and subject. It’s a solution that wouldn’t work for every occasion, but the mixing of comic strip panels and intercutting between cinematic styles works here. As if to reinforce that, we cut back to the studio, to find Harvey now surrounded by assorted ephemera & jazz records, of which he was a collector; the more obscure, the better. As he relates, it was an OCD-like passion for hunting down rare jazz that led him – in 1962 – to meet an as-yet undiscovered (& renowned cartoonist to-be) Robert Crumb at a yard sale: cue another flash-back.
A moment then, to consider both performances. Giamatti is obviously relishing this role and the chance to associate with the real Harvey Pekar, as such close proximity to the source can only make the end results all the more truthful. A noted collector & aficionado of comic-books himself, one imagines Giamatti was also aware of ‘Splendor before its transition to film so, if true, I wonder how he approached the role?
Harvey was one of life’s documentarians in the tradition of Orwell or Pepys, thanks to the pathos he could bring to outwardly ‘normal’ situations found in regular life. But his true thoughts? Throughout the film, I kept wondering whether, behind the façade, Harvey was someone else; someone capable of experiencing joy as much as misery. Having watched the film, I can’t say that he was – unless the definition of ‘joy’ is so elastic as to wrap around one’s perception of disadvantaged misery… It’s to Giamatti’s application to ‘getting’ that truth about his subject, that I found his portrayal so compelling.
Less successful was James Urbaniak as Crumb, though only because he had less screen-time and no opportunity to meet his subject. His impression of the man, is less convincing and more of a stilted caricature. To see them, back at a young Harvey’s apartment, is to watch two social inadequates content to wallow in their collected neuroses; Crumb expressing himself through his penmanship when words (often) fail him and Harvey speaking for both of them, as he kvetches about his disadvantaged life, with the half-remembered vocabulary of a failed beat-poet. If Crumb’s even listening, I doubt he cares…
Fast-Forward ‘back’ to 1975 and Crumb’s returned to meet his old friend in Cleveland. The filmmakers pull-off a remarkably comic trick here, as the pair of them don’t even leave the bus shelter at which Crumb alighted! Instead, they sit on its bench and assume old postures from ‘62, with Harvey’s monologue about life’s unfairness at least given weight now by his wife’s departure: ‘Right now? I’d be happy to trade some growth for happiness’.
Later, inspired by Crumb’s accomplishments as a cartoonist as much as reading the personal file of a deceased patient at the office (that lists Cleveland as both place of birth & death and occupation ‘Clerk’), Harvey finally gets the idea of drawing his own comic-strip, except…
He can’t draw to save his life.
Not only that, he has no voice, both literally & metaphorically. He has nothing to say, until one fateful day in a supermarket, when he joins the ‘wrong queue’ at the checkouts. His silent, fuming, anger at the awkward customer ahead, suddenly provides the impetus – the germ – of an idea, in which he channels his inner-monologue, railing against what he sees as the petty injustices of the World, into a strip with not an invented character, but HIM as the protagonist.
He presents the outline of some ideas to Crumb, using stick-figures as placeholders for want of anything more accomplished. Taken with the idea, Crumb agrees to illustrate them in an act of insightful generosity that opens-up Harvey’s world. The involuntary yelp that he gives, on hearing Crumb’s offer, goes some way both of curing his wheezing and validating his new authorial voice. The project blossoms into ‘American Splendor’ and becomes a success, as other comic-book artists take over from Crumb; each free to reinterpret the subject as when inheriting a ‘regular superhero’ from another artist.
The filmmakers then revert back to the studio, where Harvey’s now seen with a stack of back-issues, giving him opportunity to introduce the idea that, rather than be embarrassed or offended at their inclusion, his friends get more upset if they’re not in the latest issue: Cue the film’s Second Act, as we’re introduced to Toby: a colleague of Harvey’s, self-identified ‘Super-Nerd’ and, possibly, his closest friend. There’s a great set-up, where the real Toby & Harvey are considering a bowl of jelly-beans, all whilst being watched by Giamatti & Judah Friedlander, Toby’s actor. Such a clever conceit, this, and kudos to Friedlander, for capturing Toby with such laser-precision.
‘Meanwhile in Delaware’ reads the caption. Ever the chameleon, Hope Davis disappears into the role of Joyce Grabner; a young fan of ‘Splendor who, despite working at a comic-book store, has missed the latest issue. Naturally, she writes to Harvey, asking if he has any spares… His response? ‘Damn, but she’s good looking in-writing!’ They begin a correspondence, which leads to a meeting, a quick wedding and an occasionally tetchy, but long-lasting marriage that survives Harvey’s Third Act brushes with fame and illness. The film really comes alive when Joyce enters the frame, as her presence gives Harvey a sparring partner unafraid of going toe-to-toe with him, when it comes to comparing eccentricities or strong opinions. Davis plays Joyce like a thrift-store version of Diane Keaton circa Manhattan (1979) and the results are electric.
It all reminds me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) and his script for Adaptation (2002); both films that probe the porous boundary between life and art. ‘Splendor is exploring what it means to be human… To have lived a ‘life worth living’, even if, in its everyday mundanities, that same lived experience doesn’t seem worthy. Or valid, at least to the person living it.
If Harvey did nothing else with his life, then with American Splendor he at least showed the rest of us, how it might be possible for someone to make art – real art – on their terms. To contribute to wider society. To throw light as a comic observer on the inane, the inconsequential and the absurd. The end result, freights it all with real, affected meaning.
For the rest of us? We countless millions who lack a voice, but for whom Harvey acts as a worthy substitute? ‘Splendor becomes a mouthpiece for the disgruntled masses, whose lives are thwarted by late trains, long queues, awkward conversations and crumbling dreams.
In short, Harvey Pekar becomes a real-life, unassuming Superhero… One worthy of a movie.
It’s fitting, therefore, that the film should be so quietly forceful. So devoid of condescension. So artfully modest. So… accomplished, for make no mistake: Harvey’s tale might not say an awful lot about the world (or anything beyond his immediate orbit, actually) but it doesn’t need to. It’s a film about Harvey, but it’s also spinning the mirror round to our own lives. Our petty gripes, our domestic entanglements and it’s saying that it’s all okay. It’s all okay.
Harvey doesn’t make for the easiest-going of subjects, but he was never going to and his involvement with the film makes it clear, that he’s holding nothing back. It’s this very honesty – this natural crabbiness – which sets-up the film as an outlier in its nominal genre.
Laugh-out-loud hilarious, technically inventive – even dazzling, at times – it remains a film lacking an endearing soul of its own that left me admiring it despite myself.
Harvey: “I’ll be anyone you want me to be.”
Joyce: “That’s a dangerous offer. I’m a notorious reformer.”