Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but surely comic books are the opiate of the misfits. Walk into any comic-book store and just take a look around. The apparent irony is how all these people obsessed with superhero stories of strength and power, of beating up enemies and winning the girl, are mostly the sort who got stuffed in lockers and never even had the courage to say “hi” to a girl.
In that light, comic fantasies like “Superman” or “Spider-Man” represent a surrender to the values of the jocks and cheerleaders, the popular cliques who oppressed these misfits through their teens. You can see the self-loathing of the nerds reflected in characters like Peter Parker or Clark Kent, putzes who only become cool when they transform into the super-powered Spider-Man or Superman. The radical move would be not to worship such ermensch,instead to champion the “alter-egos” for what they are — nerds, imperfect but colorful.
Just look at the movies: Actors like Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Timothy Spall have succeeded by embracing who they are, not by sitting back and dreaming they could be Brad Pitt in “Troy.” The secret to nerd success is — to quote Morpheus, the spiritual guru of the nerd-magnet “Matrix” — to “free your mind,” to have the courage to reject conformist, “normal” standards of what’s beautiful, what’s ideal, what’s cool.
Underground comics have always been home to a radical hard-core of such rejectionists, and the works of tortured misanthropes like Dan Clowes (“Ghost World”), Peter Bagge (“Hate”) and Doug Allen (“Steven”) have found appreciative, postpunk audiences. But if you were to name the grandaddy of them all — the sultan of cynicism, the duke of despair, the king of kvetching — you’d have to pick Harvey Pekar, author of “American Splendor.”
Pekar, a hospital file clerk and ordinary working schmuck based in Cleveland (perhaps America’s most uncool city), took his own everyday life and turned it into art, of a sort. Bearing come-ons like “Stories About Sickness and Old People,” “American Splendor” has, since the late ’70s, been a venue for Pekar to vent on such topics as the joys of commuting to work or the aggravation of getting stuck behind old Jewish ladies in a supermarket check-out line. Self-doubt and loathing was a particularly prominent theme, with a typical frame having Pekar looking in a mirror with the caption “Now there’s a reliable disappointment.”
This would make for a totally depressing bummer if it weren’t for the fact that Pekar takes it so far it becomes a shtick, and it’s this sense of laughing in the face of despair that makes the Pekar “bio-pic” such a joy to watch. “American Splendor,” the movie, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a heartwarming comedy on misery and misanthropy. If that sounds strange, wait till you see this film.
Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti (“Happiness”) with the sort of persistent whiny grumpiness and screwed-up personal life that suggests Woody Allen turned up to 11, with all traces of “cute” lost in the mix. We meet him medias res, vocal chords shot from chronic laryngitis, and his second wife walking out on him. No need to ask why. Just take a look around Pekar’s trashed pad and listen to his sputtering, squeaky pleading and you’ll have all you need to know. It’s a hilarious piece of futility, ridiculous — as Pekar’s voice keeps giving out — and underlined with a pathetic desperation.
The film traces Pekar’s career, with vignettes on how he met artist Robert Crumb while scrounging around garage sales for old blues records, how Crumb, a kindred soul, illustrated his first stories, and how his “fame” as an underground comic author wasn’t enough for him to quit his day job. But then again, his day job was Pekar’s wellspring of inspiration: we meet the many characters and crackpots orbiting around Pekar’s office, like Toby Radloff (Judah Friendlander), an anal retentive with a particular way of O-Ver-e-Nun-Ci-A-Ting his speech, a guy who’d drive halfway across the state to catch a screening of “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Berman and Pulcini also intercut the film with commentary from the actual people shown on screen. Pekar himself appears to warn us, “If you’re looking for escapism, you’re got the wrong movie,” while the real Radloff shows up to prove that Friedlander’s over-the-top performance is no exaggeration. It’s a neat device that brings a bit of Pekar’s oft-spoken desire for “real life” to the film.
The real meat of the movie deals with Pekar’s relationship with his current wife, Joyce Brabner, played with owl-eyed charm by Hope Davis (“About Schmidt”). Pekar meets her after receiving a fan letter (“Man, she’s got good-looking handwriting!”), and pursuing her through letters and phone calls. Their first date is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. They go back to his place, a filthy mess covered in cat droppings, and Harvey lamely says, “I was gonna clean up, but why give you any false impressions.” Joyce rushes into the toilet to hurl — a reaction to one of her many food allergies — and when Harvey brings her a herbal tea, she proposes. After spraying the bathroom with deodorizer.
It’s here that “American Splendor” excels. We’re used to Hollywood love stories giving us two beautiful people who fall in love with each other because, well, they’re beautiful. We’re also used to romantic comedies, where less beautiful but cute and superhumanly chirpy stars fall in love. What we rarely get is the spectacle of two real, flawed people, struggling to make it work, to actually find and hold some love after the idealistic images have been flushed.
Did I say “love?” Yes, and in a cynical indie film, no less. We’re also used to smartass cynics who can show us how dysfunctional relationships can become, how full of duplicity, selfishness and misguided assumptions. (See “Happiness,” “American Beauty,” et al.) “American Splendor,” almost miraculously, takes the opposite tack. It shows us, rough edges intact, how an incorrigible pessimist and antiromantic can actually, much to his surprise, come to recognize the joy and happiness life has unexpectedly brought to him. The world’s first feelgood movie on despair? It just may be.