AMERICAN SPLENDOR written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on work by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, produced by Ted Hope, with Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar and James Urbaniak. 100 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Friday (August 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 68. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Where Ghost World left off, American Splendor begins. Terry Zwigoff's great geek tone poem took Robert Crumb as its inspiration, and inspired whole closet legions of men who schlump through life as compulsive record collectors, showy misanthropes and minor geniuses.
Harvey Pekar is a giant among such men. A colleague of Crumb's, Pekar famously launched his own alt-empire in 1976 with his American Splendor comic book.
Chronicling first his own life as a kvetchy file clerk, he then sought the grace in other mundane lives, writing small, incisive stories that he handed off to a succession of underground comic artists to illustrate, beginning with Crumb.
"This is most of life," Pekar says on the phone from New York City. "I thought I would try to concentrate on the ordinary aspects of living, because they add up to something tremendous.
"I've been credited," he can't resist adding, "with influencing not only other comic book artists, but also writers of sitcoms."
To date, there's been an American Splendor stage play, plus a legendary string of appearances on the David Letterman show. Now comes the movie.
Paul Giamatti, the Yale drama graduate who played the evil primate in Mark Wahlberg's Planet Of The Apes, plays Pekar from the inside out.
"He's got this thing he does with his head and neck," Giamatti explains in a separate phone conversation. "It's like he's got a hairball or something. He doesn't edit himself, so everything's rising up."
Pekar's recurring bouts of laryngitis also have a spiritual dimension, says Giamatti, manifesting "his powerlessness in the face of his job and the world. I think they wanted to dramatize that in the film - a guy losing his voice and finding it through his comic books."
Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini wrote Pekar into the film alongside Giamatti's portrayal of him.
"They thought I was some kind of an entertaining character or something, I dunno," Pekar says. "I wasn't averse to it."
Even more than in the comic books, that strategy offers a tilted mirror view of author and subject.
Pekar never wanted "an exact imitation," he says. He wanted "a guy who gets me in general, and maybe shows the right kind of emotion at the right time. As far as someone who can do a great imitation of my voice or walk exactly like me, I don't think that's necessary."
"He's a skeptical guy," Giamatti says. "He's got a skeptical glare and a way of sidling up to the world at first. He has a reputation for being a misanthrope, but he's actually a very gregarious guy, a very social guy. He likes people.
"I may be more of a misanthrope than he is," Giamatti insists. "I'm interested in what's unlikeable about people. I feel it's what everybody, particularly in American life, is constantly trying to hide. You can't be unlikeable or in a bad mood, ever."
So Giamatti's Harvey Pekar exists in some mean-spirited middle ground between the two men. He jokes that during the shoot "the costumes were really lousy and the materials felt disgusting. It was great!"
But Pekar, in the film and in his own work, isn't mean so much as perennially dissatisfied. Even with the success of a film that went to Cannes and won the Grand Prize at Sundance, he's still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He's always lived his life, he says, "never being satisfied and always having to prepare for the next supposed disaster.
"I got a lot of that influence from my mother, thinking you could never be ready enough. Hitler was always around the corner, and you had to watch yourself and save your money."