American Splendor follows the life and times of Harvey Pekar, a V.A. hospital file clerk who might just be the grumpiest son of a bitch who ever lived in Cleveland. Just scraping by in a crappy apartment, a dead-end job, and two failed marriages behind him, he enters a personal frontier. What’s he going to do with his life? Will he be a file clerk forever? How can a guy who is so easily angered by how stupid and disappointing life is just go along and be part of the problem? After a chance meeting with legend-in-the-making Robert Crumb, Harvey begins his own comic about his own life called American Splendor, and with it comes a modicum of fame, an introduction to his future wife Joyce, a feud with David Letterman, a public battle with cancer, and a personal journey that might not take him where he thought it would, but certainly takes him on a path worth traveling. The big question is whether or not he can open his eyes wide enough to recognize it. Not everybody does.
This is a sleeper film that is by turns engrossing, endearing, off-putting, humorous and heartbreaking. As it chronicles Pekar’s own personal frustrations as the life of a guy who chronicles his own personal frustrations, the movie all has a meta feel to it. At various points, the narrative partially takes on the form of a comic book itself, with thought balloons, people walking around in frames, and an animated version of Harvey speaking to himself in his thoughts. Meanwhile, the fourth wall comes down in scenes where the actors playing Harvey and the folks in his life are standing right there next to the real Harvey and company as the narrative switches to full-on documentary mode. So what kind of movie is American Splendor, anyway? Is it a biography? A documentary? Whatever it is, it works, and rarely have we been so willing to enjoy the grimy details of a hardscrabble working life and all of the mental and emotional turmoil that comes with it. There are surely folks out there who life the same kind of life Harvey had and dealt with it with a lot less anger and angst. But none of them are even remotely as interesting as Our Man, as Harvey likes to refer to himself.
The truth is, Harvey’s got a lot more going for him. At first, it’s more than he realizes. Later on, it’s more than he cares to admit. It’s easy to shuffle along and snarl at everything when you’ve got nothing invested in the world. But once you have actually built something, then you really learn how much you care about the things outside of yourself. There is a point in the story where Joyce leaves for several weeks on a trip to Israel, and during that time, Harvey goes a little bonkers from loneliness right as he discovers a lump that turns out to be testicular cancer, and right as he’s decided he’s had enough of being a punchline on the David Letterman show. It’s like everything Harvey’s ever been mad about boils over in a few chaotic weeks. But once the dust settles, we see, as Harvey also sees, that these things hurt because he bothered to let them in at all. The guy who was kicking around Cleveland openly muttering about old Jewish ladies in the supermarket, griping about the cost of used records, and starting a date by announcing he’s had a vasectomy isn’t the same guy who takes pleasure from knowing that the things that bug him in life bug a whole lot of other people, too. Nor is he a guy bedeviled by the anxieties of a challenge unattempted, once he’s got some 40 issues or proof behind his vision for using comics to tell stories far beyond tales of superheroes and monsters. Harvey’s got a lot to be thankful for. He just never imagined he’d ever feel the need.
There is a funny interlude when Harvey argues with his uber-nerd friend Toby Radloff about the ending of a movie they’ve just seen. Toby loves it, and sees it as a feel-good call to arms for marginalized people like him everywhere. Harvey thinks that’s all crap; just a Hollywood daydream for suckers too stupid to see through it. And yet, at that very moment, Harvey’s doing something with real artistic merit that resonates in precisely the same way with an audience far bigger than he ever could have expected. Daydream or not, there’s value and power in reaching an audience. Maybe that’s why Harvey tries to blow up his own fame, since he can’t accept fame or fortune without feeling like he must have sold himself out for it. But eventually, even he begins to understand that there’s a difference between making a mark and being a shill, and if being well-known for doing what he does is a problem, then perhaps he should have been a little more careful of what he wished for.
Eventually, Harvey comes around, though, and recognizes that life may be sweet and sad, but it sure beats the alternative. There a sweet, poignant moment of truth at the end, when Harvey has won his battle against cancer, and he and Joyce have turned that into a successful graphic novel called Our Cancer Year. He and Joyce adopt young Danielle Batone, the daughter of a mutual friend. He even makes it to retirement from his file clerking gig, and is given a warm send-off by his colleagues, who never stopped delighting in seeing themselves appear in Harvey’s comics. When Harvey, Joyce and Danielle share a family hug at the retirement party, we see a warm smile crack Harvey’s mug, and we can’t help but think that if there’s a shot at happiness for a sourpuss like Harvey Pekar, then there’s a shot at it for all of us. We just need to let it in.