The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, August 25, 2003
FROM OFF THE STREETS OF CLEVELAND: The key scene in American Splendor takes place close to the end of the film, after Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk who writes autobiographical comics, has staggered weakly to his wife and asked if he's a guy who writes comic books about himself or just a character in his own comic books. He passes out, and we jump sideways in time, to a tale neither in nor out of the narrative: it's about the other Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland telephone directory, and how their presence has always gnawed away at our Pekar's sense of identity.

This is in a film that's shown us the actors playing Pekar and his friend Toby Radloff watching the real Pekar and Radloff chatting; and the actors playing Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner watching two other actors playing actors playing Pekar and Brabner on stage, ineptly performing some scenes already enacted much more watchably for us onscreen. Perhaps more to the point, it's in a film that shows Pekar, who appeared on the David Letterman show a few times in the '80s, getting mistaken for an actor who plays a fictional character called "Harvey Pekar" on the David Letterman show.

Just to be clear: There really is a Harvey Pekar, he really writes a comic book about his life, he really did appear on Letterman, and his comics really inspired a play as well as a movie. But you can see how a man could lose track of all this, even without contending with a few extra Harveys in the phone book.

Pekar's comics aren't the sorts of stories that translate easily into a feature-length film. He usually writes character sketches, illustrated essays, and existential tales that culminate not in plot twists but in epiphanies; they do not add up to one long story arc that breaks easily into three acts. So writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have performed an impressive feat here, pulling together a movie that, in the absence of an ordinary plot, propels itself mostly by cutting away to documentary scenes of the real Pekar and his circle or by showing us panels from his actual comics. A story does emerge, though, and it centers around the issue Pekar raised while passed out and ruminating about the phone book: his identity. Over the course of this picture, we watch a very lonely man meet an equally lonely woman, and we watch the authentically messy, strife-ridden, and loving marriage that blooms. A little girl enters their life -- not in the conventional way -- and Pekar finds himself escaping anonymity not on paper, stage, or television, but in the formerly unlikely role of husband and father. Think of it as a Jimmy Stewart double feature: It's a Wonderful Life meets Harvey.

Two scenes in the film don't ring true for me. One comes early on, when Harvey shows a stick-figure comic book script to his old buddy Bob Crumb, who declares that it's great and asks if he can illustrate it. The filmmakers try to milk the sequence for suspense -- What will the great R. Crumb think of Pekar's comic? -- and instead it comes off as manipulative and contrived. The screenwriters are evidently better at adapting Pekar's episodic style than at grafting the occasional major plot development to it.

The other scene comes late in the movie, as Pekar walks his daughter to the school bus. This actually begins well, but it ends on a note of forced sentimentality. Our hero then tells us in a voice-over that his personal problems, contrary to appearances, haven't really gone away. For the real-life Harvey, that's surely true; movie-Harvey, though, seems to have settled into a happy ending. The disconnect between life and Hollywood must have seemed obvious even to the filmmakers, because they then tack on some documentary footage that warms the heart a bit more legitimately but doesn't quite wash away the feeling that the writers are cheating.

Did I mention that I liked the movie? I suppose I should, if only because the above comments sound more ambiguous than I feel: This film is one of the best I've seen this year. Paul Giamatti is excellent as Pekar, and Hope Davis is just as good as Brabner. And Berman and Pulcini have done a fine job adapting the style of a comic book -- actual panels and balloons -- to a live-action motion picture. Ang Lee's
Hulk did the same thing, which is kind of odd when you think about it -- that two movies so different in tone and flavor would attempt the same stylistic feat, simultaneously and independently of each other.

posted by Jesse 4:07 PM
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