Harvey Pekar is an ordinary man living an accidental life.
A depressed middle-aged file clerk from Cleveland, Ohio, in a fit of pique at his own life, writes a series of short vignettes about his American Dream. He writes comic books about ordinary life and the bleak wisdom and bleaker logic associated with it, all influenced by his friend Robert Crumb (creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural and an early inspiration for the Mambo label).
With his friend Crumb illustrating his stories, Harvey’s comic books take off as the underground comic movement builds momentum. Having been left by his second wife, Harvey’s life becomes an endless series of lost weekends and repetitive days working in the hospital as a file clerk. Until he develops a letter-writing rapport with Joyce Brabner, a fan of his comics who suffers borderline hypochondria, he seems destined to remain alone. That is until they finally meet in person and marry almost at once.
As Harvey’s star rises higher, Joyce searches for meaning in her own life and departs to Jerusalem. While she is away, Harvey discovers he has cancer and upon her return they write a comic based on the experience (which is a seminal classic named Our Cancer Year if you ever get the chance to read it).
There’s more of Harvey’s life to tell, but it is far more interesting to find it out for yourself. This is a film about one man and his attempt at immortality. Afraid of ending up a nobody with nobody to mourn him, Harvey breaks free of the little box that society had imprisoned him in and this is the whole theme of the film. Being about comic books, this film does just as Harvey did and breaks free of the borders and boundaries of the traditional comic book page, dragging us inside with the images and the story to surround us. And surround us it does, as Harvey’s story isn’t so different from ours. Sure the situations change and the people are different, but Harvey’s explanations and dark wisdom on the everyday ring true, regardless of who you are or the life you live.
Part documentary, part autobiography, part dramatic film, part biography, American Splendor is a bittersweet tale of an everyday man overcoming his everyday situation (but only to the degree he wishes). It’s warm and it’s funny, but most importantly it’s all real. Harvey Pekar and the characters who fill this film are all real people living real lives and that’s what makes this so good to look at. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of comic books will know Harvey’s work and if not that, certainly Robert Crumb’s work. This is the strange guy your parents warned you about whose life makes for an equally enthralling story and one widely darker than Harvey’s depressing life.
From the first moments of this film I was in love with it. Not just because I’m a comic book artist myself and write my own autobiographical tomes, but because of the brilliant way the film has been put together. There are multiple familiar sources of comedy and storytelling devices, but there are also some things we’ve never seen before. Never in my life have I seen a film doing research on itself and documenting its own content. That sounds a lot like the image of a mirror reflecting a mirror unto infinity, but strangely this film manages to get everything it wants to say in without tripping over itself or becoming confusing. Two actors play Harvey at various ages, yet Harvey is in the film playing himself and referring to the actor playing Harvey (Paul Giamatti). Harvey is interviewed whilst Giamatti sits in the background talking to another actor playing Harvey’s friend Toby. The real Harvey and the real Toby then have a halting discussion between themselves while the actors laugh in the background. Giamatti walks out of a scene onto the Letterman show, yet the real Harvey and the actual period footage is what we see. The two characters are so cleverly enmeshed we don’t even care.
And here then is part of the brilliance of this film. Knowing it couldn’t (and definitely shouldn’t) be told in a straight-laced bio film manner, the directors have just gone crazy in destroying the regimented panels of comic books and film. We get a little animation here and there, characters walking through comic book frames, montages of comic panels, strange but true events and much more… (and that’s just the first ten minutes).
American Splendor is a wholly original film. The brilliance by which it has been told endears us to Harvey himself, even though he is a cantankerous old crank we wouldn’t say hello to in the street. This is because Harvey’s honesty comes through at all times. He’s not shy about the truth and that much is obvious from the miserable life he describes to us. He doesn’t pull any punches and he is nowhere near a Hollywood phony (to use his words). American Splendor remains for me one of the most innovative cinematic experiences it has ever been my pleasure to view and although I know this story well, I don’t tire of re-watching it. Harvey is the Everyman. He is the Everyman who decided that being ordinary wasn’t enough for him and he reached deep and found a creativity that was (and remains) truly groundbreaking.
I wholeheartedly recommend this film for anyone who loves cinema, loves comic books, loves autobiography or loves documentaries. There’s something here for everyone with all those bases covered but also because Harvey speaks so honestly about the everyday events we all know and live with.
I hate to continually reuse the term groundbreaking, but this film is truly as groundbreaking cinema-wise as the comics Harvey wrote were in their day.