Despairing of success

The new film about comic book author Harvey Pekar mythologizes a depressing life.

Money is a beautiful thing – if you’ve got it. If you don’t, it’s still beautiful, but a beautiful you want to chase down and beat to a pulp for not always being there. Or so it goes in our pretty, capitalistic world. File clerk Harvey Pekar, the main character in “American Splendor,” is like most of us; he’s been chasing the comfort of greenbacks his entire life, though his quest (i.e. the American Dream), just as it is for most of us, isn’t defined so bluntly. Rather, it’s the reaction to the quest – the suffering – with which Pekar defines his life. And since the mid-70s, he’s done so in an autobiographical comic book called “American Splendor,” a sort of therapy for the unfortunate.

“American Splendor,” the movie, is a hybrid film, using narrative, documentary and a bit of animation to explore the measly life of our moonlighting comic book writer, who’s actually a real person. Paul Giamatti, the short, balding actor from “Private Parts” and “Man on the Moon,” portrays Pekar with a face of permanent disgust. Disgust that suggests the four decades the real Pekar spent filing in a Cleveland hospital. The real Pekar, now a legend of underground, nonsuperhero comics, but still un-rich, narrates the story. The film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is hilarious and well acted, but the crux of its provocation is the hybrid presentation. Not only does Pekar narrate the film, but the directors often cut to staged interviews with him, his wife and even co-workers who are both characters in his comic and in the film.

That mixture of dramatization and documentary gives the film a kind of self-awareness. But it’s a fake self-awareness. There are staged scenes where Giamatti and other actors are resting after a cut, talking with each other, and in the same frame we see Pekar and one of his actual co-workers being interviewed for the documentary portion of the film. Scenes like this are fun and a little eerie, but they’ll remind you of television shows like “The Real World” and how the reality of those shows isn’t real at all.

These jarring moments give you the idea that the film is almost an extension of Pekar’s comic. We see him as a man crushed by capitalism, smothered to the point where even the artistic endeavor he employed to take out his frustration – his comic – and now the movie about his frustrated life, has become entwined with the capitalistic impulses at which he scoffs.

Late in the film, we see a dramatization of Pekar in the 1980s, when his underground celebrity has made him a regular guest on David Letterman’s show. After a few appearances he realizes that Letterman and NBC are simply exploiting his neurotic personality, using him in the same way they use Stupid Pet Tricks. But he willingly pimps himself out to Letterman, thinking of the readership his comic will garner as a result of the exposure. Giamatti’s face reaches new levels of disgust during these moments.

The combination of the narrative and documentary techniques in “American Splendor” reveals the innocently deranged state we can fall into when capitalism doesn’t give back. As it does when artists willingly pimp themselves out to sell their art or when they let filmmakers make quirky little movies about their discontent. The film’s self-awareness peaks when the real Pekar realizes just how much his discontent has paid off. He never made any money from being a file clerk and he never made any money as a writer chronicling a life of not making any money. But, during one of the film’s last interviews, he brightens up a little and says he’ll probably make a “good chunk of change from the film.” Well, good for him. He finally made it.

It’s a harsh thought, but try pondering Pekar’s participation in “American Splendor” as ingenious advertising – another avenue to pick up some much needed cash. The film is a funny and sometimes evocative look at the way commerce and art are tied together, even when the discussion is about some guy scripting his next comic book while taking a coffee break at his meaningless, low-wage desk job.