on February 6, 2004
Being familiar with Harvey Pekar's comic book American Splendor, I was really pleased to see the movie was about as close to the source material as any other movie I've ever seen. I haven't had an opportunity to read Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel by Harvey and his wife Joyce about Harvey's bout with cancer, but that storyline is also incorporated into this movie.
Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti, leads an ordinary life in the city of Cleveland, working as a file clerk in a VA hospital, divorced twice, scours garage sales and thrift stores for rare Jazz records, is thoroughly well read, and observes the people in his life and his surroundings fairly closely, taking it all in, good and bad. Harvey does tend to a rather morose individual; so don't come into this movie looking for tales of happiness and joy. A chance meeting with a greeting card artist and future underground comic legend Robert Crumb develops in to a long-standing friendship through their similar interests. Once Crumb becomes famous for his unusual style of comic books, Harvey decides he wants to try his hand at it, creating, with the help of Crumb's illustrations, stories about his life titled American Splendor. No superheroes here, but more of a realistic portrayal of his own life, warts and all. Soon he develops cult fame, and meets his future wife, Joyce, a comic book storeowner from Delaware. Harvey's fame manifests itself in a sort of bizarre fashion, leading to a number of appearances on David Letterman's late night talk show, and even trickles down to people he knows and includes in his book, specifically his ultra nerdy co-worker and friend Toby Radloff, played wonderfully by Judah Friedlander.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie was the inclusion of the real Harvey Pekar and other people in his life, such as his wife, Joyce, and his very odd friend, Toby Radloff. Harvey does some narration, and appears in a few scenes with other, real life people, who are portrayed by actors in the movie, in scenes between the scenes, if that makes sense. It allows for a comparison between the actors playing the characters and the real life people those characters are based on. It sounds like it would be a little disjointed, but directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini pull it off wonderfully. What was most interesting to me was how much Paul Giamatti got into the character of Harvey, from physical appearance, speech, dress, attitude, and even mannerisms. Sometimes I wasn't sure if I was watching Paul Giamatti's Harvey Pekar or the real Harvey Pekar. One of my favorite scenes is one where Harvey discusses the peculiarity of his name, and how odd it was that he found a couple of other people in the phonebook who shared his name.
Presented in a wide screen format, the movie looks great. Also included are a plethora of extras, including a reprint of a comic insert Harvey Pekar created for Entertainment Weekly, a group commentary including the real Harvey Pekar, a featurette, and a few hidden items that aren't too hard to find. (The one with the real Toby Radloff is great.)