We are sometimes told we are all heroes. Everyone has what it takes to perform some Superman-like task. Not just in film, where protagonists redeem their dark and murky past with a senseless, emotional act of goodwill, but in the real world too. American Splendor and the directing duo behind it, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, do not believe that to be true. Nobody is a hero. The underground comic writer Harvey Pekar is brought to life with the sensibilities and cult following he was nurtured by throughout his career. His best-known work, a comic book autobiography by the title American Splendor, is adapted to the screen with an interesting spin on the biopic formula. How does a down and out comic book fan who brushed shoulders with Robert Crumb prepare himself for the underground, big league success and the mythology around it?
As he clutches at his throat and watches the woman of his dreams leave “before I kill myself,” there is a conflicting emotional strain felt in how we perceive Pekar. Is he worth our sympathy? He certainly isn’t worth the time of day to those family and friends around him. The real-life Pekar and the narration he provides does much to convince us of his dry wit and humour, introducing “the man playing me,” who, he points out, looks nothing like him. Those moments of sharp, monotone humour are played with well, and often we cut to Pekar, explaining scenes and people in his life. Such a clunky style of filmmaking shouldn’t work, but Pulcini and Berman are careful to use these interjections from Pekar as a time for reflection. They do not detract from Paul Giamatti’s hard work in portraying Pekar as a fictional being, nor do they feel imposing or uninteresting to an average audience member.
In fact, they are crucial to our understanding of Pekar. Reality and fiction blur together so we can access this oddity of life. Pekar’s encounters with fellow comic book writer Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) decide many of his life choices. Inspired moments appear from time to time. Instead of a monologue, the comic book takes control, with thought bubbles expressing the anger and desire of our leading man. A life eaten away getting stuck in line and working as a clerk is no life worth living at all. American Splendor shows that with a universal understanding. It is better to shoot for the stars and capture those five minutes of fame than it is to aim low and sink into a worthless existence. Pekar lived both at the same time. Clerk by day, but comic book creator by day also. He blurred the line between art and existing, which was necessary to his craft and his experiences.
Touching and troubling it may be to see how well Giamatti can conduct and compose grief in a character, American Splendor is a well-crafted look at how nobody is super. Harvey certainly thinks next to nothing of himself, and as he wallows in self-pity in cluttered neighbourhoods to the riffs of a beautiful jazz soundtrack, it is hard not to feel a little sorry for him. He is humanized, grounded and deflated. But that is the point Pekar finds with life. Even when doused in misery and pain, he cut through that to define the world around him, one that was still adapting to his craft and methods long after his passing. He is the understated innovator, and for all his moping, he articulates his thoughts, writes them down on the page, and does what so few did back then, but so many do today. He blogged, he wrote of his life and the pain of living but did it with a style and flair that American Splendor manages to keep up with. Are we prepared to die as clerks, or live like underground kings?