Grumpy curmudgeon Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a file clerk at a Cleveland Pa. V.A. hospital with little ambition little hope and little joy in his life other than what he gets from reading listening to his beloved jazz records and scouring garage sales for that rare 25-cent find. It is at one such garage sale Harvey meets Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) a fellow comic book fan and jazz enthusiast who is on the way to becoming a famous underground comic writer/illustrator. Harvey not only admires Crumb’s work he also despairs of leaving this world without making his own mark on it so he takes a stab at writing a comic book that Crumb illustrates for him. Titled American Splendor Harvey’s book is different than any other comic seen before; rather than focusing on superheroes or fictional characters his is an adult-themed series about his life and the working-class people he knows. The series’ unsentimental hard-boiled humor finds a following and by the late 1970s Harvey had become an acclaimed underground comic book writer in his own right–he even becomes a regular guest on The David Letterman Show. Eventually he meets and marries one of his fans the sardonic and anti-establishment Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) who faithfully supports him through their financial difficulties and Harvey’s bout with illness. All the while Harvey’s still toiling at his day job (the real Harvey Pekar didn’t retire until 2001).
Character actor Giamatti single-handedly carries this film with great grouchy aplomb even as he switches from the character Harvey to an actor playing Harvey (it’s done documentary-style with voiceover and appearances by the real Harvey Pekar who narrates the story Giamatti acts out). His dry ornery one-liner delivery is priceless and he fits the irascible foot-dragging Harvey to a T. Pay special attention to one brilliant scene in which Harvey a Jew himself comes close to losing it at the market while waiting in line behind an old Jewish lady with a fistful of coupons and a bone to pick with the cashier. Davis too embodies the neurotic Joyce who gently mocks but deeply loves and endlessly supports her prickly misfit husband. Also good is Judah Friedlander as Harvey’s co-worker Toby a self-proclaimed nerd with a bizarre way of speaking.
Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman were drawn to Harvey’s story because of its Everyman appeal and their vision of it comes through in the film’s grimy rust-belt environs and grainy naturalist ’70s-movie feel. The directors tell most of this tale via the dramatization starring Giamatti but cleverly interweave comic cartoons moments of imagination and even old footage of Pekar himself from his Letterman appearances into the narrative. Even the real Harvey Pekar and the cast of characters from his life in Cleveland make an appearance. This all makes for one overlong albeit highly creative movie and also makes the character of Harvey more interesting than one suspects he would have been had the film been done in a straight biographical style. Problem is the story’s niche appeal just doesn’t live up to the collage of techniques used to tell it. Harvey understandably grim and depressed given his bleak circumstances simply isn’t as fascinating a guy as the filmmakers would have you believe and all the creative devices in the world can’t convince you he is.