If any art-house flick comes to define 2003, it may well be "American Splendor," the quasifictionalized, sort-of-true biography of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Like 2000's warmly embraced "Ghost World," the film is based on a highbrow "adult" strip. And like creative watersheds "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," "Splendor" relies on the rousing spectacle of a true-life character fighting for air with his commodified graven image. That's just the window dressing, though, for a latter-day vision quest that will move you in places most movies can't reach.
As depicted in the film, the molelike Harvey (Paul Giamatti) is a hardened curmudgeon leading a life of dreary obscurity as a file clerk in a Cleveland, Ohio, hospital. Through his friendship with underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), he hits upon a grand idea: He'll make his mark -- and maybe even revolutionize the comics industry -- by penning a strip about his own, distinctly nonheroic life. The fact that he can't draw anything more detailed than stick figures doesn't deter Harvey. As long as he has Crumb and others to provide the visual accompaniment to his words, he has a shot.
Our hero gets his comic off the ground, but in a tasty twist on the usual rags-to-riches story, its success only carries him as far as the outer rings of celebrity. A recurring spot as comic relief on David Letterman's old NBC series is about as good as it gets for Harvey, who still has to work at his hospital job to pay the rent on his Cleveland hovel. But the publication of his series, "American Splendor," does bring him into contact with Joyce (Hope Davis), a dour Delaware hypochondriac who engages him in a pen-pal relationship -- and eventually marriage.
The remainder of the film follows the couple's anxiety-riddled relationship, including bouts with illness (both real and imagined) and a standing disagreement over children. (She's for having them, he against.) In addition to these more common tribulations, the Pekars also have to contend with Harvey's part-time role as a low-cultural totem, which Joyce considers rank exploitation. To him, it's nice work when you can get it.
The film's central thesis is that a humble life is as important as a celebrated one. That's a noble idea that rarely translates into great entertainment: Humble lives may be the backbone of society, but they're not always terribly interesting to watch. Still, Giamatti's Harvey, a bug-eyed contrarian who's always on the brink of outrage, is the kind of construct that keeps audiences spellbound. Pair him with Davis' Joyce, and you have one of those rare quirk-romance pairings that deserve mention alongside Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Really.
The movie embraces its cartoon origins, with animated versions of the comic-strip Harvey horning in on the live-action article and film frames turning into comic panels at unexpected moments. Sometimes, the real-life Harvey and Joyce show up onscreen to take over for the actors playing them -- a technique that should by rights decimate the movie's believability. (Remember when Tina Turner showed up in the final minutes of "What's Love Got to Do With It" and ruined the entire experience for you by reminding you that you'd been watching Angela Bassett all along?) But Giamatti's Harvey is just different enough from the real thing to hold his own, yet sufficiently similar to maintain an unbroken narrative flow. And as we learn, the cartoon Harvey has been drawn by many artists over the years. So what harm is there in having one more floating around?
We also get to meet some of Harvey's colorful co-workers, including Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), a prototypical nerd with a fondness for piña-colada-flavored jelly beans. At first, Friedlander seems to have erred by pushing the character into caricature -- until we meet the real thing, who's even more extreme.
Though it plays a wicked game of three-dimensional chess with its source materials, "American Splendor" shouldn't be ghettoized as a precocious indie exercise. At the end of this alleged po-mo flight of fancy, you may find a lump in your throat that the most brazen two-hankie picture couldn't hope to plant. The reason has to do with the character of Harvey, and how his stabs at establishing a legacy attain their own perpetual motion. Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini vindicate his journey in ways that are better experienced than written about. If humble lives really are full of miracles, then their movie is most certainly one of them.