"American Splendor" is a kind of double film: a documentary about the Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar, who for the last thirty years has written the texts of graphic novels about his life and relationships, and his wife Joyce Brabner; and a parallel fiction film about 'Harvey Pekar' and his wife 'Joyce Brabner,' who are played by, respectively, Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Both parts of the film are so nicely done that the fiction illuminates the reality and vice versa. It's a neat, and very difficult, trick to pull off, and the filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have done it with ingenuity and wit.
Pekar (the real one) is a sullen, terminally self-conscious man who spent most of his working life as a file clerk at the V.A. hospital (he recently retired). Undereducated but obviously very bright, he began writing a journal of his daily life - what he thought, what he thought about people he knew or met, what he thought they thought; and what he did or didn't do that day or week. He was fortunate to know Robert Crumb, the comic strip artist, who began illustrating Pekar's internal monologues, and the strip, called American Splendor, caught on as a kind of underground samizdat. It soon found a publisher, and is still going strong.
It's fascinating to compare the two Harveys. Giamatti plays him as more open, more na´ve, but a little less articulate. Hope Davis as Joyce, in a '70s wig that came right from the shmatta store with glasses to match, is a lot perkier than the real Joyce, though I should point out that Giamatti and Davis are many years younger than the real Harvey and Joyce we meet in the film.
The film consists of interviews with Harvey, conducted by Springer Berman, and recollections and recreations of past events and relationships, as played by Giamatti and Davis. They slide seamlessly from one to the other, and the strength of the film lies in the constant little jolts we get from the double vision. Pekar is not without wit or a sense of irony. When his cult popularity peaked, he was invited to be a guest on the David Letterman show. His first few times he played the good guest - we see the tapes - but then decided not to be nice, and walked off after insulting Letterman.
Davis's Joyce, working in a comic-book store in Wilmington, Delaware, responds to Harvey's personals ad and comes for a visit. Knowing that she will be his third wife, she says, "Let's skip the courtship and get married." Which they do, and in real life have evidently managed to stay together till now. The film makes no attempt to psychoanalyze Pekar, but lets us simply get to know him as deeply as his own words and actions will allow. And because he is such an original, and his life as he's conceived it so unobtrusively explosive, it works very well.
One last word about the actor Judah Friedlander, who plays Harvey's longtime friend and coworker Toby Radloff, a near-autistic geek, who nevertheless is both insightful and funny. In just a few scenes he makes Toby into perhaps the most memorable character in the film, upstaging both the real and the pretend Harvey and Joyce. He adds an intriguing texture to what would otherwise be a more limited piece. We are glad to meet him.