'Splendor': Comic Book Life That's Not So Funny

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2003

Let us examine that most frightening of Western species, the Schlumpfus americanus, or American schlumpf.

He has the posture of a question mark, the surly, sullen face of a lout. He snarls. His skin seems not to fit his bones well, and he's always twitching or twisting as if to escape it. He can never think of anything to say that isn't a whine, a rant or a crack. He's a cockeyed pessimist. His teeth are raggedy, but that's okay, because his clothes are cheap. He's losing his hair, but it was never attractive to begin with -- although without his hair, he's even more unattractive. He hates his job, his friends, his life, and his anger has turned his face gray. When he speaks, bitter flecks of saliva fly out to drive away the world. He's annoying. He's grim.

Here's the scary part: He's you. He's me.

But mainly, he's Harvey Pekar, a dismal little man from Cleveland who represents the spirit of reality unvarnished by romance, of hope carved small and bleak, of eternal anger and furious resentment. His problem is that he was born entitled, though to what, he's not sure. He just knew he was going to get a lot of cool stuff, and the fact that it never arrived shows how screwed up the world is.

There are millions of him, nameless and rancid, but we know Harvey's name because he concentrated all his fury into writing the script of a comic book -- he was not an artist, understand, but a writer -- which he then sent off to his old Cleveland buddy Bob Crumb (as in the R. Crumb). Crumb, his own kind of genius, recognized a genuine talent for the concentrated expressiveness that is the art of comic-book writing, and as a consequence the yearly comic book "American Splendor" was born, written by Pekar, drawn by R. and many others. A modest hit, it spawned cult fame and subsidiary projects, the latest of which is this film. So "American Splendor" the movie turns out to be a hybrid doc drama, the upshot, years later, of Pekar's life in the flesh and in the little boxes of the comic book.

It's a document full of strangenesses, unlike any before or after. That it's unique seems pretty much to fit and express Pekar perfectly, because he is the most unique Everyman ever coughed up by our twisted society. He is so like us, so of us, so deeply and powerfully us, he is instantly recognizable; but the power of his talent sets him apart. How many of us, after all, star in our own comic books, go on Letterman, sit through book signings? But you can't say he's been spoiled. He was a jerk before the comic book and now, after the books, he's become . . . well, nothing. He's not rich, he's not really famous, he's, er, still a jerk. I like that in a man.

The movie, directed (brilliantly) by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, offers Pekar in three forms. In the first form, it's just Pekar himself, answering questions that Berman puts before him, usually without much grace or animation, without wit or style, just the usual Pekar stuff, which is a snide, barely civil response. In Form 2 -- the majority of the movie -- Pekar's life is dramatized, with actors playing Pekar; his wife, Joyce; his friends at the Cleveland Veterans Hospital (where the real Pekar was a file clerk). The third form combines the first two: Actor Paul Giamatti, who plays Harvey (but doesn't have his angry gauntness) interacts with the real Pekar on the set of Form 2.

Sometimes it becomes even more aggressively postmodern. For example, recounting Pekar's long and twisted relationship with David Letterman in the 1980s, Giamatti is shown in the green room backstage, waiting to go on with Dave. When he's called to the set, he steps out of the frame, and archival footage displays the real Pekar's segment on the talk show; then he steps off-screen, and Pekar is Giamatti again, discussing what he just said to Letterman.

It sounds more complex than it is: Once you accept the identities of the cast and fix them to their real-life counterparts, the whole thing spins along effortlessly, the study of an unpleasant man trying to get through his unpleasant life, beset by unpleasant problems: lack of money and respect, lack of hope, strife with mate and pals, the passage of time, the absence of love, the acceptance of reality and, finally, the appearance of cancer.

That last segment, based on the illustrated novel that Pekar and Joyce wrote, recounts his year with a crab nibbling at his innards, and the chemical heat that burned it out. Nice it's not, but then cancer isn't nice. Pekar hates the addition of anguish to despair and pain to indolence. He hates Joyce (played deadpan by the great Hope Davis) for being upbeat and trying to find a way to help him cope. He hates himself for his stupidity in getting cancer. He just hates and hates and gradually struggles toward recovery.

The genius of the film is its utter commitment to the Pekar point of view. As Pekar's own style mandates, it sugarcoats nothing; everything it portrays has the harsh banality of life as it is lived in the midwinter of Cleveland's climate and light, and people as they behave, which is often poorly. It also expresses endless contempt for media and entertainment forms that turn these experiences into synthetics of inappropriate but appealing imagination.

Will you like the movie? I didn't. It's every bit as crabby and grumpy as Pekar. But in its ugly way, it shows the purest and most transcendental form of beauty, which is just life adapting and continuing. It's a hymn to human endurance, and you don't need to climb a mountain or trek to a pole to see it. You just have to hang out in Cleveland.

American Splendor (97 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Cinema, Loews Georgetown and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated R for profanity and intensity.

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