Hail the Grumpy Hero
Some of my best friends are grumpy, but none of them can match Harvey Pekar in all his depressing glory. American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti as the Cleveland native of comic book fame, captures the essence of this American original -- a V.A. hospital file clerk who uses funny and insightful touches as he chronicles his frustrations with everyday life.
This film is a kind of original itself. I don't remember ever seeing a biopic which also included scenes with the actual subject of the film reacting to it. But there's Harvey Pekar -- along with his real wife and buddies -- appearing in various parts of the movie without detracting one bit from our feeling for Giametti (Planet of the Apes) as Pekar. How did filmmakers manage that trick? Much of the credit surely goes to Giametti, who delivers a spot-on performance. He scrunches up his eyebrows, gives everyone those frowning looks, and seems to crawl into Pekar's skin. Although he doesn't resemble Pekar physically, he's got the curmudgeonly attitude down pat.
The most amusing scenes in American Splendor involve Pekar's short courtship with Joyce (Hope Davis of The Secret Lives of Dentists), one of the comic book's biggest fans. She's almost as pessimistic as he is -- and a hypochondriac to boot. After writing a few letters back and forth, they meet in a restaurant neither of them can stand. Back at Pekar's messy pad, Joyce tells him they should skip all the dating nonsense and get married. I laughed out loud at a short interchange between the real couple. When Joyce explains she was attracted to Pekar because she thought he had a sense of humor, Pekar replies, "That shows how much you know."
What does a comic book hero do after discovering he has cancer? Work on another comic book, of course. After all, it's just another of life's complexities to be examined by Pekar, but this time with Joyce's help. Their Our Cancer Year pleased Pekar's fans and received widespread critical acclaim.
This unusual movie, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is earning accolades of its own. Named one of the ten best films of 2003 by the American Film Institute, it also garnered five Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Male Lead. Will such massive positive response be enough to cheer up Harvey Pekar? Don't bet on it.
(Released by HBO Films/Fine Line Features and rated "R" for language.)