The docudrama American Splendor might be the first movie to actually live up to that label. The film, written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, is a fusion of a drama about Harvey Pekar and a documentary about him. Pekar is a crusty, unceasingly miserable file clerk in a V.A. hospital whose underground American Splendor comic series focuses on the minutiae of the life of one Harvey Pekar, a crusty, unceasingly miserable file clerk in a V.A. hospital who writes comics.
This level of self-reference should be too cute and modern for words or patience, but it has the strange effect of being more honest than either a straight documentary or drama. The acted-out story brings the narrative to life in a way no talking-head film could, while the documentary and interview footage lends the rest of the movie credibility and realism.
Most people, for example, wouldn’t buy that Pekar or his self-described “genuine nerd” (and borderline autistic) co-worker Toby Radloff are as odd as the people portraying them would have you think. Yet when the real Toby shows up in the movie, you’re shocked to realize that the performance is, if anything, underplayed, not an exaggeration.
Harvey and Toby and everybody else in American Splendor are fascinating people, worthy of the feature spotlight, and they certainly give the movie its human appeal, particularly as Harvey battles cancer. But the film’s most dazzling quality is its formal dexterity.
The mixing of the two ways of making movies about real people is casual and assured, not drawing attention to itself, as if this were the most natural and obvious way to present the story. I’m guessing the boldness of the conceit barely registers with most people.
When Paul Giamatti first shows up as Harvey, Pekar notes in strained voiceover that the actor doesn’t even look like him. The comment is surface funny — showing the protagonist’s charming sourness — but in retrospect it’s also remarkably resonant. Pekar, after all, is only the writer of his comic, and different artists illustrate it. So having two visually dissimilar Harveys in the movie is a cinematic example of what happens with Pekar’s graphic novels. It also stresses the difference between real life and a representation of that life.
The most extreme example comes when Pekar first appears on Late Night with David Letterman. You watch Giamatti in the green room, waiting to be called to the stage, and when he leaves to make his entrance, the camera stays on the television in the room and shows the clip of the real Pekar on the show.
This sophisticated, risky narrative strategy — emphasizing that the actors are portraying rather than being real people — might be off-putting to some people. (I think it had to be a factor in Giamatti being snubbed for an Oscar nomination.) But there’s no disconnect between the actors and their real-life equivalents; while the voices and mannerisms might not match exactly, the performances nail the spirits — the essences — of their subjects.
This is hardly the only chance American Splendor takes that pays off in a big way. At one point, Giamatti addresses the audience directly while walking through an animated but empty world. He tells a story straight out of Paul Auster, about the shockingly large number of Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland phone book. One of them dies, and then another, yet the next year, another Harvey Pekar replaces them in the phone book. “Who is Harvey Pekar?” he asks.
The scene follows one in which a weak, cancer-stricken Harvey asks whether he’s a real person or a character in his comics. The phone-book aside has the look and feel of a custom-made out-of-body experience, a way of ensuring that Harvey felt comfortable in his walk toward the light.
But Harvey doesn’t die. Instead, Pekar, basically by accident, acquires the components he needs to have a relatively stable, happy life — although he would never say it out loud.
Yet he does admit to his happiness, wordlessly, in a surprisingly sweet, poignant ending that peels away a few layers of Pekar’s curmudgeon. You’d be hard-pressed to find another movie that tells such a good, touching story with this much intelligence and audacity.