So what’s Harvey Pekar’s deal, anyway? Well, he’s a freelance jazz critic, an obsessive record collector and a file clerk in the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Cleveland who has managed to use his egregiously unglamorous life as the basis for a relatively successful and long-running comic book called American Splendor. Away from the comic-bio form he is, truth be told, an unexceptional writer, no better or worse than a thousand other freelancers who can concoct a coherent description/analysis/opinion about whatever matter is at hand. Having read his reviews from the mid-’60s (Down Beat) to last week (the Boston Phoenix), I’d say that if collected they’d make for a middling reference work but not something you’d return to in order to relish an idiosyncratic voice or supple phrase making. But back in the mid-’70s, inspired by the work of his old friend Robert Crumb, he came up with a great concept — a comic book about a bilious schmoe, a guy too smart to settle into the drone of his file-clerk job, perpetually discontented and alienated. And if Pekar was not a notable prose stylist, he did have the odd talent of being able to distill his curdled worldview into pithy sentences that fit nicely into comic strip balloons. He was also a keen and not necessarily unsympathetic observer of the everyday eccentrics who inhabited his world.
Despite the bluntly ironic title of his comic book, Pekar’s metier is more steeped in sarcasm, irony’s coarser cousin. When, after buying some more used records, his comic incarnation thinks “Another short-term goal accomplished,” or when he looks at his even-more-disheveled-than-usual self in the morning mirror and thinks “Now there’s a reliable disappointment,” the mood is bitter but leavened by smart-ass self-deprecation. If Pekar were a somewhat more well-adjusted guy with some perspective on the absurdity of constant bleakness, he could be judged a master of dark comedy. But the more one gets to know about him the more one would be surprised if he thought of himself as a humorist or a satirist rather than just an honest chronicler of his life and times. In fact, his wife, Joyce, having first “met” him through his comics and married him a week later, says she thought she was marrying this funny guy and ended up with this doom-and-gloomer.
American Splendor the film, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a cleverly constructed bio-pic that gives us three versions of Pekar, one being played by the ubiquitous character actor Paul Giamatti, another being the various comic book renditions (Splendor used different illustrators, including Crumb in its early days — Pekar, by self-admission, being unable to draw a straight line) and finally Pekar himself. Paul Giamatti does a good impersonation of Pekar — he’s nailed down the ranter’s wheezy voice and the occasional bug-eyed glare that renders his look more dangerous than he is — and makes him, if not wholly likable, at least understandable. His Pekar is someone whose life seems to have gotten derailed at an early age — his prickly personality probably had something to do with that — and so he stews in his blue-collar job, endlessly disappointed and with a heightened sense of class consciousness. He’s like one of those guys who, at the least provocation, will start a tirade about our corporate rulers, with whatever insights he might have about oligarchical capitalism obscured by his near hysterical sense of personal grievance.
The movie follows Pekar from total to relative obscurity, the height of his media exposure (which is some sort of measure of success) being a series of appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman,” where his unironic bile came across as some sort of weird shtick. The last part follows Pekar through the health crisis which led to his graphic novel collaboration with Joyce, Our Cancer Year. This in turn leads to something like a happy ending which seems a little forced given Pekar’s built-in defenses against happiness. Still, the film juggles its counter-realities deftly, achieving originality with a minimum of strain. It’s a feel-good film for outsiders, something which almost everybody, at some point in their life, has been.
Opens Friday at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.