A mix of drama and documentary is used to tell the true story of Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland hospital file clerk who was inspired to turn his mundane, odd lifestyle into the cult comic book American Splendor after a chance meeting with artist Robert Crumb.
For decades, Cleveland-based file clerk and grouch Harvey Pekar has written an autobiographical comic. This film version samples anecdotes and routines, picking up a plot thread in Harvey's third marriage to an equally marginal character (the excellent Hope Davis) and rushing through the medical traumas chronicled in My Cancer Year, with an emphasis on how he turned the experience into art rather than give in to sickness.
Paul Giamatti, one of the great contemporary supporting players, grabs a rare lead with a snarl and a slouch, managing to co-exist on film with many illustrated versions of the character and Pekar himself. A typical strategy is the introduction of Harvey's best friend Toby, who reveres Revenge Of The Nerds the way others swear by Apocalypse Now, played by Judah Friedlander as what seems to be an outrageous, though heartfelt, caricature. Then the real Toby Radloff shows up, demonstrating that the performance is exactly true to life. With ingenious use of semi-animation and editing - oddly parallelling Ang Lee's approach to The Hulk - this shambles rather than slices, but manages to make heard a unique voice.
If you can get through the confusing goings-on of the first reel, then this is a satisfying experience - funny, touching and tragic by turns. And Giamatti deserves every award going.
Reviewed by Kim Newman