Splendor’ worth basking in

Cindy Chang

Sarcastic, frank and poignant, “American Splendor” is a film based on a comic book series that followed the less-than-perfect existence of real-life file clerk Harvey Pekar. The success of his comic book series was significant and probably the most important aspect Pekar’s life, whose own highlight reel consists of two divorces and a dead-end government job at a VA hospital.

This documentary-style film uses both narration and reenactments to portray Pekar’s rise to semi-stardom and pays homage to his comic book roots by incorporating abstract film styles. “American Splendor” is both a comical and unapologetic examination into the multi-dimensional story of Pekar’s life.

Harvey Pekar seems to have been irritated since he was a little boy, and life as an adult is no easier. At the beginning of “Splendor” Pekar (Paul Giamatti) comes home from a dismal trip to the doctor and discovers his second wife is moving out. With no other joys in life, he focuses on his collections of comic books and jazz records.

It’s easy to laugh at Pekar — and why should you feel guilty about it? When interviewed for the film, Pekar expresses no remorse for his own pessimism; rather, he wears it proudly. But one question comes to mind — can Pekar really be this pessimistic about his life?

After all, he has become a successful comic book creator and finds some contentment in a loving wife and an adopted daughter.

There are so many interpretations of Harvey Pekar it’s hard to know which one to believe. There is Harvey the man, a Cleveland native who found success in the comic book industry. But then consider these other manifestations: there is Harvey, the comic book character; there is actor Giamatti’s interpretation of a gruff and scowling Pekar; and finally there is a second-rate reenactment of a 1980s play based on the “American Splendor” series starring Donal Logue (of TV’s “Grounded for Life”).

Will the real Harvey Pekar please stand up?

We can be sure that today Harvey Pekar is of retirement age — and in one scene we see Harvey the man celebrating with coworkers at the VA hospital. But with all these characters, “Splendor” makes you wonder if you’re being duped. Even Pekar himself doesn’t seem to distinguish between the numerous portrayals in the film. More importantly, he doesn’t seem to distinguish between reality and fantasy. At times, Pekar uses both “I” and “he” to describe actor Giamatti’s portrayal of himself.

“American Splendor” poses these quandaries in subtle ways, much like the original comic book series. It’s not about caped crusaders or the protection of the world; “American Splendor” explores everyday life in both its sad and comedic times.

Directors Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini obviously appreciate Pekar’s ability to spin awkward moments into comic gold. When Pekar’s third wife-to-be, played by Hope Davis, waits to meet him for the first time, we see her hallucinations of what he may look like. Having only seen other artists’ interpretations of him, she imagines various black and white cartoons waiting to pick her up at the airport. One looks like a young, suave Marlon Brando, but another character resembles a disgruntled psychopath.

Pekar doesn’t seem to possess the mature wisdom of an older man. He doesn’t use “American Splendor” to pass on lessons learned to the next generation; rather, he’s content living life through anything but rose-colored glasses. One of his last candid thoughts about his life was his wish for a healthy grace period between his time now and his death. There’s some satirical twist in the way Pekar relishes his own pessimism. Watching the film, he might be shocked to see himself caught in unguarded moments of affection.

But that’s probably being too optimistic. Pekar seems to have had more success when he viewed the world as half empty rather than half full, and with him, that’s all you can ask for.4A