I had coffee with Harvey Pekar once ' sat down, said hello, and Harvey took it from there, regaling me with the petty bullshit of the book tour he was on. As readers of Pekar's autobiographical comic books know, petty bullshit is his bread and butter ' all those little things we're told not to sweat but do anyway. And although he's finally quit his day job as a file clerk at a veterans hospital in Cleveland, Pekar shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, his quest for fame and fortune (on his own terms, of course) may be speeding up with the release of American Splendor, a multilayered biopic that does full justice to the strangely liberating power of Pekar's crankiness. Every dog has its day, and after 25 years of barking through the night, Harvey finally has his.
He sure makes the most of it, narrating the movie but also appearing in person, so that we might judge Paul Giamatti's impersonation of him. Obliterating the fourth wall, American Splendor combines dramatized footage with documentary footage, the two often linked via comic-book panels that spring to life. And the blending is so smooth and effortless that we feel like we're floating in that postmod pleasure zone between life and art, which is where Pekar spends so much of his time. Often in such movies, the dramatized stuff suffers, turns into a series of vignettes. Not here. Giamatti, in addition to nailing the grimace that sums up Pekar's relationship to the world, turns in a full-fledged performance that anchors the movie, gives it a heart and soul.
Giamatti also nails the voice, or lack thereof ' the squawk that, according to Pekar's doctor, comes from a lifetime of screaming and shouting. Fortunately, American Splendor spares us most of the screaming and shouting, focusing instead on Pekar's courtship of and marriage to Joyce Brabner, a brainy comic-book dealer with a weakness for self-diagnosed medical conditions. Whether Hope Davis has captured the real Joyce seems immaterial; she and Giamatti treat us to one of the great love stories in the history of movies, beginning when Joyce, after Harvey first touches her, runs to the bathroom and throws up. Alas, so it goes for a guy who seems to have been born with a where's-that-bad-smell-coming-from look on his face.