This is a film that creeps up on you. At the start, it felt to me like a telemovie retread of the great documentary Crumb (1994), especially as its central subject, underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), is an associate of Robert Crumb.
Harvey's daily life is an almost total misery. He is constantly depressed, and every situation is a bother worth grumbling about. He works as a file clerk in a hospital, dealing with nuts like the resident nerd, Toby (Judah Friedlander).
But Harvey is also an intellectual of sorts – even an artist, although the pathetic stick figures he puts on paper betray no pictorial skill whatsoever. In his own way a cultured and adventurous guy, he begins to collaborate with Crumb and others on the chronicle of life, the comics series American Splendor.
Harvey subsequently experiences a strange and disquieting form of celebrity. It brings him a wife, Joyce (Hope Davis), who is as neurotic as he is – and is also able to fire off dictionary definitions of all neuroses. But it also brings him into the mainstream sphere of The David Letterman Show. And there are bigger problems to follow.
The co-writers-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini don't waste time introducing some special, fanciful devices into this sometimes too-ordinary rendering of Harvey's life and times. In a supermarket, cartoon figures pop up to converse with Harvey in his mind, as in Alain Resnais' underrated I Want to Go Home (1989), another film about a disgruntled pop culture artist. Some scenes are framed and edited as in a comic strip.
But, best of all, many of the real people appear in documentary and interview scenes, almost taking over the movie. Harvey is the most prominent, of course, but the glimpses we receive of Joyce and others are priceless.
American Splendor skates over some issues, such as why Harvey retains his file clerk job so tenaciously even when he is a successful, recognised artist. It's a familiar syndrome – the populist who fears the inevitable social mobility that comes with money and fame, for it threatens his entire, rather precarious sense of identity – that Berman and Pulcini could have explored further.
But, by the end, this record of an extraordinary ordinary life is extremely moving. And few films can match the splendour of the scene where the characters earnestly argue over the cultural significance of The Revenge of the Nerds (1984).
© Adrian Martin September 2003