Though he's been a pioneer in autobiographical comics, Harvey Pekar could never draw much more than crude stick figures, so he farmed out his likeness to his friend R. Crumb and other illustrators, each of whom had his own ideas about the man and his anti-heroic essence. In the same spirit, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's innovative biopic American Splendor splinters Pekar into a funhouse menagerie of cinematic Harveys: Harvey the fictional character, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti; an animated Harvey; an actor (Donal Logue) playing Harvey in an L.A. stage play; and, of course, the real Harvey Pekar, donning his signature scowl in documentary interludes. In a way, the echo effect lets the filmmakers off the hook, defending the film from anyone inclined to believe that its version of Pekar might be inauthentic—or worse, cartoonish. But the multiple Harveys also speak to the deeper problems of identity and celebrity that beset a man famous for turning the stuff of ordinary life into a groundbreaking form of autobiography. With a lovably cantankerous sense of humor and an honest strain of hard realism and pathos, the film thrives on the tension that comes from an artist who devotes himself to the truth, but watches his image get away from him. Shooting in Cleveland's least glamorous neighborhoods, Berman and Pulcini stick to a mostly brown color palette, suggesting a city and a man that know little but overcast skies. Though Giamatti isn't as imposing a figure as the real-life Pekar, he has mastered Pekar's defeatist slouch and pugnacious manner, carrying himself like a born misanthrope who cares just enough about humanity to scold it with a withering sideways glance. While working a dead-end job as a file clerk in a VA hospital, a job from which his underground success didn't rescue him, Pekar has the radical idea of making a comic book about everyday problems, and presents his script to fellow Cleveland native Crumb (a hilariously effete James Urbaniak), who volunteers to illustrate it. As the naturalistic comic catches on in independent circles, Pekar adds a key new character in the equally neurotic Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a pen pal from Delaware who becomes his third and current wife. After an opening half charged with energetic style and hilarious observation, American Splendor takes a much darker turn when Pekar's infamous appearances on Late Night With David Letterman turn sour and he struggles with testicular cancer. Berman and Pulcini handle the dramatic shift in tone with a touching respect for Pekar's fundamental heroism: not superheroism, but the everyday grit that suffuses his work. By choosing a subject whose life and art are inextricable, they've made the rare artist biopic that goes beyond the dull march of events and actually illuminates the creative process.
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