Arriving not a moment too soon, "American Splendor" is a glorious rebuke to all this summer's recycled, effects-ridden, laboriously "fun" Hollywood disappointments piled along the wayside like so many crashed cars. An unclassifiable hybrid of drama, comedy, documentary and animation set mostly in grungy, working-class Cleveland, starring a paunchy leading man playing a depressive, angry outsider who falls for a neurotic, unglamorous woman, this is everything that a summer movie is not supposed to be. And somehow it's wonderful. Not for nothing did Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's movie win best feature at Sundance from both the jury and the audience. So far this year, no American movie has provided such rich, unusually satisfying flavors.
The movie's subject is cult comic-strip writer Harvey Pekar, whose scruffily naturalistic comic books (which he wrote, but didn't draw) home in furiously on the large and small indignities of his own life. His work (as well as his music and pop-culture criticism) wins him a hard-core fan base, numerous awards, a play based on his work and cranky stints on David Letterman's show--but only modest financial success. Through it all, he keeps his full-time job as a file clerk at the VA Hospital in Cleveland, which no doubt suits his obsessive-compulsive nature.
Unlikely movie material, to say the least. But taking their cue from Pekar's work, the husband-and-wife team of Berman and Pulcini stretch the boundaries of movie bios. Just as Pekar looked like a different guy depending on who was drawing him, the filmmakers present him in four guises: as played--with pained, kvetchy brilliance--by Paul Giamatti; as an animated black-and-white figure; as he appeared in clips from his ranting guest spots on TV, and as himself--a pugnacious, gravel-voiced man giving a running commentary on his life and the movie we're watching. Movies about artist's lives are usually deadly and diminishing. This cubistic approach, blurring the line between the man and his work, gives us the impression we're seeing the world from inside Pekar's head. It's as if the filmmakers let themselves be invaded by their subject's quirky, cranky spirit.
"American Splendor" is a painfully funny movie. There's nothing in the history of movie courtship quite like the first meeting between Pekar and his future wife and fellow depressive, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis). "I've had a vasectomy" is his worst-foot-forward opening line, shortly before she enters his cluttered lair--and vomits. Then there are his hilariously peculiar colleagues at the hospital, such as Toby (Judah Friedlander), who can wax eloquent on the profundities of "Revenge of the Nerds," being a pristine example himself.
The brainy, rust-belt, anti-establishment working-class milieu (superbly captured by production designer Therese DePrez) hasn't been seen much in movies, except for the documentary "Crumb" and "Ghost World," both made by Terry Zwigoff. And it's no coincidence that Robert Crumb, played by James Urbaniak, figures prominently in Pekar's life. Both men's art percolates with a funky mix of fury and wonder. Yet the most surprising thing about "American Splendor" is how moving it ultimately is. The last thing you'd expect from the dour, fatalistic Pekar is an affirmation of family ties. But the (qualified) happy ending feels honestly earned, its sweetness all the more potent because it's been fed by the sour. An extra bonus is the great soundtrack, ranging from Coltrane's sublime version of "My Favorite Things" to a delicious Chocolate Genius cover of "Ain't That Peculiar" under the final credits: one last gift among many.