- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

“American Splendor” stirs ripples of amusement, starting with its preposterous title, faithfully derived from a comic book series that originated with the protagonist, Harvey Pekar. The anhedonic Mr. Pekar is impersonated sometimes by himself but mostly by the character actor Paul Giamatti, whose dumpy figure usually leaves us off-guard for quick-witted and combative traits.

Now in his early 60s, Mr. Pekar is a retired file clerk from Cleveland who achieved a fringe celebrity in the 1970s by distilling his proudly cranky, solitary ruminations in an “underground” comic illustrated by friend Robert Crumb.

Other illustrators inherited the text, updated more or less annually by Mr. Pekar, who later became a mainstream curiosity when discovered by David Letterman’s talent scouts. The Pekar tenure as a visiting curmudgeon ended in 1988, when he got miffed (at himself, essentially) and picked a quarrel with the host. He departed with the ludicrous curse, “Goodbye, America, thanks for nothing.”

A fond and would-be inventive biographical comedy, the movie attempts to hit all the Pekar highlights, such as they are, while dropping all the recognizable names. There are some sharp performances scattered through a shambling narrative, starting with James Urbaniak’s turn as Mr. Crumb, himself preserved in Terry Zwigoff’s revealing biographical documentary of 1994.

The conjugal team responsible for “American Splendor,” Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, are venturing into commercial features for the first time; their previous experience was in documentaries. They try to make a virtue of the crossover by intermingling appearances by Mr. Pekar, his spouse Joyce Brabner, his workplace buddy Toby Radloff and other real-life prototypes with the scenes entrusted to actors. Sometimes the principal cast members are also supplanted by animated caricatures meant to recall the comic books.

The upshot is not so much a stylistically flexible and innovative movie as a stylistically tentative and inconsistent movie. The filmmakers lack the sort of finesse and confidence needed to assure that the juggling is more of a kick than a nuisance. Their chronicle is also a variation on the usual vanity production. The standard approach is to indulge an established or newly minted star who craves mass idolatry. Here, instead, the central figure is a nobody with stifled intellectual and expressive aspirations that finally gets into pop culture circulation.

The satirical possibilities go by the board in part because Harvey’s downcast, low-rent, sedentary tendencies are not as much fun to mock as spoiled, glamorized egotism. During the climax, Harvey becomes an alarming echo of Jenny, the heroine of “Love Story.” While exploiting his bout with cancer, the subject of one of his comic books, the movie ends up soliciting pity as shamelessly and indiscriminately as a hardened tearjerker.

The leading role proves something of a booby trap for Mr. Giamatti. Typically a comic secret weapon or troublemaker in supporting roles, he seems a focus of inertia during much of “American Splendor.” It’s easy to get the impression that other cast members are permitted to insinuate rings around him, notably Hope Davis as the awesomely saturnine Joyce and Judah Friedlander as arch-nerd Toby. Both are much closer to unforgettable screwballs than Harvey himself.

Movies that insist on celebrating cult figures of one magnitude or another, from “Where the Buffalo Roam” (about Hunter S. Thompson) to “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (about Chuck Barris), have usually miscalculated the audience appetite for similar chumminess. Mr. Pekar is rather like Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig stripped of the magical shapeshifting abilities. I guess it’s funny that comic books, the domain of titanic heroes, should be trespassed by such an anti-heroic, banal, carping figure, but the joke doesn’t resonate on the screen.

If anything, you’re left with rather stale and platitudinous payoffs, reflecting today’s therapeutic trust in dysfunctional characters to make their neuroses or phobias work for them.

The rags-to-riches fable is a reach these days.

Rags-to-15-minutes-of-celebrity is the fashion exemplified by “American Splendor.”

*1/2

WHAT: “American Splendor”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Cinematography by Terry Stacey. Production design by Therese DePez. Costume design by Michael Wilkinson. Editing by Mr. Pulcini. Music by Mark Suozzo

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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