What's the opposite of "escapism?" Whatever you'd call it -- harsh naturalism, warts-and-all realism -- that's the subject of the comic book American Splendor and the new movie of the same name. In the mid-1970s, when superhero fantasies dominated comics, Harvey Pekar launched a "funnybook" about his seedy, unglamorous life as a Cleveland file clerk.
If the comic book held up a mirror to its creator, the American Splendor film holds a mirror to the mirror and creates dizzying reflections. The writer-director team of spouses Shari Stringer Berman and Robert Pulcini don't just recount Pekar's improbable success story, but playfully explore the tension between the author and his two-dimensional persona.
Thus the "real" Pekar narrates the film in his trademark rasp, and makes on-camera appearances. But we also follow actor Paul Giamatti as he slouches in Pekar's footsteps. Giamatti finds both comic exasperation and alienated poignancy as Pekar, perfectly capturing his shifty, bulbous eyes and mouth more comfortable in a grimace than a grin.
In 1962 Pekar lucks into meeting fellow jazz enthusiast Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, suitably poker-faced), who virtually launched the underground comics movement by the end of the decade. Crumb inspires Pekar to write his own comic stories, although he can't draw and his stick-figure storyboards are laughably primitive. But Crumb offers to illustrate Pekar's scripts and launch his career.
The American Splendor comic occasionally found epiphanies in everyday life but made the strongest impression as a self-portrait of its slovenly, outspoken author. Pekar has little in common with other cartoonists, proving closer in spirit to comedian Lenny Bruce or poet Charles Bukowski. He often portrays himself talking -- or ranting -- to the reader against a blank background in his signature torn T-shirt, and occasionally in the film, Giamatti repeats his monologues word for word.
He constantly grouses that the comic book doesn't make money, but his notoriety leads to other rewards. His future wife Joyce (Hope Davis) sends him a fan letter that leads to a long-distance friendship. In a phone call, she expresses concern with meeting him face to face, since some artists draw him like a young Brando, others like an ape emanating stink lines. Pekar protests, "Those are motion lines! I'm an active guy." At the Cleveland bus station, Joyce imagines seeing life-sized versions of different cartoon Pekars before meeting him in the flesh.
One of the pleasures of Splendor is seeing Davis use such stoic wit to capture Joyce's hippie quirks, which include owlish glasses, picky eating habits and a tendency to psychoanalyze. We all know people like her, but almost never see them in movies, and part of the point of American Splendor is to capture the true details ignored by mass entertainment.
The film proves more broadly humorous than the comic, and its use of animation, word balloons and split screens can feel gimmicky and self-conscious. But Berman and Pulcini are right to focus on Pekar's confusing balancing act between life and art. American Splendor ultimately finds its heart not in its meta-moments, but in their relationship and its amusing Beauty and the Beast aspects.
American Splendor is the third entry in a serendipitous trilogy of indie films about comic books, each hinging on heroes who love old jazz and hate mainstream American culture. Crumb made a nonfiction chronicle of the artist's life and work, while Ghost World offered a straight-up adaptation of Daniel Clowes' comic book. American Splendor falls between drama and documentary to tell a true story that's mundane yet cartoonish, bleak yet hopeful, absurd yet somehow splendid.