*American Splendor (R)
If you've ever known the gnawing discontent of scraping and scrubbing only to find your bathroom floor, kitchen sink or entire life still soiled with dirt, doubt and despair, then you'll have a head start into the world of Harvey Pekar.
Where most misanthropes succeed only in making themselves miserable, Pekar has fashioned a curious career from his own insightful brand of lonely gloom. Through his observationally droll American Splendor comic books (which he's written since 1975, with illustrations from comic book greats like Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco), Pekar chronicles life as a file clerk at a VA hospital, moping around his apartment, and tending to his voluminous record collection.
Pessimism as a way of life is hardly a forte of the American cinema. The rare attempts usually focus on the redemptive power of Macaulay Culkinized youths teaching old farts how to love again. But what about those who never cheer up? At what point does self-imposed misery transcend a phase and become one's MO, and what does that look like?
The husband-and-wife directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini has done a remarkable job of probing these questions by weaving narrative and documentary filmmaking with comic book art into a surprisingly cohesive film. For those who gag upon mention of the P word (postmodern) fear not. If American Splendor is built upon a self-reflexive structure, it's not a theory-laden exercise in text interrogation. Rather, it's a more efficient means of fleshing out an engaging portrait of the artist as an old crank.
Paul Giamatti plays the ever-irritated Pekar, while Hope Davis does a delightful job as his nebbish wife Joyce Brabner. Brabner and Pekar's first "date" commences with him stating that he's had a vasectomy, progresses to Brabner barfing in his toilet and concludes with her deadpan marriage proposal, "I think we should skip the courtship and just get married."
The real-life Pekar provides the film's guttural voiceover and appears in archive footage from his combative David Letterman appearances in the late '80s. Real or constructed, Pekar embodies several fascinating American contradictions. Despite his contempt for American mass culture, he's only too happy to grandstand for Letterman in the interest of self-promotion. And for all his emphasis on working-class Cleveland authenticity, Pekar can't deny his own careerist ambitions -- even if they never permit him to quit his day job.
One of the more fascinating qualities of American Splendor's mixed genre approach is measuring the gap between character and caricature. For example, Pekar's colleague Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander,) initially comes off as pure stereotype. A self-professed nerd, Toby looks every bit the part with glasses thick enough to stop a bullet and a speech pattern that punches every consonant. But when the real Toby Radloff stands up, it forces a long second thought.
Ultimately, American Splendor serves as sweet vindication for the American crank. While Pekar's misery appears more comic than dismal, it's anything but useless. The scope of his fulminations about an America we can actually recognize makes his art transcend an illustrated anxiety journal.
While Pekar never lets a smile last too long, the film suggests that his life is more tolerable than he lets on. Pekar won't admit it because who knows what would happen if the sun were to shine on his rainy parade.
-- John Dicker
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown