American Splendor Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman

American Splendor Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
In Harvey Pekar, American underground comic fans found an everyman. Or so the legend goes. In fact, Harvey Pekar — writer but not illustrator of long-running comic book series American Splendor, starring himself and his pathetic life — is not an every-anything. Pekar is a grumpy, hoarse, emotionally disconnected, occasionally paranoid, cheap, selfish bastard in his own unique, fascinating way; Harvey Pekar is representative of nothing but himself. So why, in comics and last year on the big screen in the form of a film adaptation of his work, is Pekar so fascinating? His honesty, for one. The seemingly unflattering way he allows himself to be portrayed by different illustrators — most famously buddy Robert Crum in the early days — is another factor. Harvey compels simply by being Harvey, even when he's not, as this film posits. American Splendor in its film form introduces us to not just one or two Harveys, but a variety. Paul Giamatti (whose memorable character roles include "Pig Vomit" in Howard Stern's Private Parts) does a fascinating job of interpreting Pekar, just as various illustrators have done, but he's regularly upstaged by Pekar himself, who narrates and interjects throughout the film. But cleverly, the film places the real Pekar in a sparse, artificial white room that resembles nothing more than a blank comic panel; Giamatti as Pekar gets the warmer toned, more realistic treatment. It's this balance of trickery that adds layers of depth to American Splendor — like the comic itself, the film calls attention to its artificial story elements without betraying them. In fiction, or pseudo-reality, can truth be found, it seems to be saying. Or at least hints of enlightenment. On DVD, the real people in Harvey's life dominate a full-length commentary: Harvey is joined by his wife Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), along with genuine nerd Toby Radloff, as well as Giamatti and writing/directing team Pulcini and Springer Berman. It's interesting not only because they provide an informed outsider perspective into the process and its accuracy, but also because Pekar's personality can't help but shine through. (He's sophisticated enough now to own a cell phone; he remains uncouth enough to answer it during the recording of the commentary.) And one suspects that, like his mid-'80s appearances on Letterman, this film is just another vehicle for Harvey to sell more comics. Buy this DVD and you'll get a two-for-one; it includes a short Pekar book, illustrated by Gary Dumm, called My Movie Year, where he reveals that despite the film's success and acclaim, "I don't think I have it made by any means. I'm too insecure, obsessive and paranoid for that." True Harvey to the last. Plus: post-film featurette, web downloads, animated menus, more. (HBO/Warner)