I saw, and loved, American Splendor, not least because of Hope Davis’ pitch-perfect performance as Joyce, Harvey Pekar’s penny-plain sourpuss of a wife. (It happens that I’d also seen Davis the night before in The Secret Lives of Dentists, and seeing two of her films back to back left me more sure than ever that she is the finest actress to come out of the indie-flick world–better even than Parker Posey, though I hate to admit it.)
What makes American Splendor so good is not its postmodern switching between “Harvey Pekar” the character and Harvey Pekar the bonafide on-screen weirdo himself–that aspect of the film borders on the cutesy–but the clarity and humor with which it portrays the grubby melancholy of lower-middle-class urban life. In that respect, the films it most reminded me of were Ghost World (no big surprise there) and (here comes the curve ball) One Hour Photo, a considerably more thoughtful movie than was generally realized when it came out last year.
At the same time, I think it should be pointed out that the “Harvey Pekar” of American Splendor is a semi-fictional character, and that a movie about the real Harvey Pekar might well have been even more interesting than American Splendor, if less touching. Yes, Harvey the celebrated author of autobiographical comic books and “Harvey” the fictional author of autobiographical comic books both spent a quarter-century working at crappy jobs at the Cleveland VA hospital, survived cancer, razzed David Letterman on camera, found love, and started a family. But the real Harvey Pekar is not simply some hapless record-collecting schlub from Cleveland who decided one day to write comic books about his working-class life. He is also a full-fledged left-wing intellectual–homemade, to be sure, but the shoe still fits–who reviews books for the Village Voice and does regular commentaries on NPR. (Search his name on Google and you’ll find, among many other things, his thoughts on Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which is about as eggheady as it gets.) You’ll learn nothing of this from watching American Splendor, or even from reading Pekar’s slightly faux-naif blog.
None of which invalidates the movie–it has its own expressive validity independent of the man whose life it purports to portray. Still, it should be kept firmly in mind that in creating “Harvey Pekar,” the makers of American Splendor–not to mention Harvey Pekar himself–scissored out inconvenient biographical details whose inclusion in the film would doubtless have caused it to make a radically different impression on many people. “Harvey” is a weird but nonetheless convincingly common man whose plight really does come across as more or less universal. Harvey is…well, something else again. To put it mildly. And then some.