From off the streets of Cleveland comes 'American Splendor,' screams
the cover of every issue of the writer Harvey Pekar's surly and
open-eyed autobiographical comic series. The towering, action-packed
logo is a further sardonic comment on the lack of activity in the
protagonist's life. There's as much at stake in this hilarious,
moody and cantankerous film adaptation of "Splendor" as
there was in this summer's other movies of comics anti-heroes like
"The Hulk" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
Harvey is extraordinary — by the way, so is this movie. As
played by Paul Giamatti, Harvey's a gray wad of anger that spends
his time in his cave-like apartment, with shelves sagging under
the weight of his collection of record albums and jazz 78's. And
sputtering to his equally powerless pals about a world that he refuses
to understand. Slumped into a posture that's a question mark with
a pot-belly, Mr. Giamatti's a frustrated tremor, shaking and gesticulating
futilely. The filmmakers use the real Mr. Pekar as a narrator initially.
For a time, the film cuts to the real-life Pekar, fulminating onscreen
with his friends against a stark-white background. This sounds like
a mocking, distancing device — and in the wrong hands, it
would be. But the real-life Pekar is as vivid in his way as Mr.
Giamatti. The actual Pekaris a flinty crank spouting while the actors
portraying figures from the streets of Cleveland chuckle in disbelief
at him and his obsessive, nerdy friends, like Toby (played in the
film with breath-taking precision by Judah Friedlander). The great
cast also includes Earl Billings as Mr. Boats, one of Harvey bellicose,
small-minded and larger-than-life co-workers, and Danny Hoch. Harvey's
romantic match, Joyce Brabner, is played with a tart, intriguing
directness by Hope Davis that's equal parts Emma Goldman and Olive
Oyl — that is, the Olive Oyl of the comics, not the screaming
helpless No. 2 pencil of the cartoons. And the picture becomes something
richer and fuller when Joyce enters the film. Harvey has someone
to square off with, and her eccentricities complement his.
© Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times