In the 1970s, Harvey Pekar was an ordinary middle-aged file clerk in Cleveland who, inspired by the success of his friend, underground comics artist Robert Crumb, decided to turn his own life into a comic book. Soon the tales of his humdrum existence, enlivened by his freaky colleagues and his own cranky though highly intelligent worldview, made Pekar a cult figure. His frequent appearances on Late Night With David Letterman didn't hurt.
American Splendor is an amiable, often very funny docudrama, mixing contemporary interviews with Pekar with reenactments of the key moments of his life played out by a fine Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis (as Pekar's wife) and even a bit of animation. I was entertained throughout, but found myself longing for something that Pekar's own comics – which are revealing and poignant enough – don't already give us.
There's a tantalizing bit of painful truth when Pekar snarls about how his fame turned him and his friends into corporate entertainment's laughingstocks, but writer/directors Berman and Pulcini move on before it can sink in, as they're too busy cramming in all the facts of Pekar's biography. It was a cute choice to have the real Pekar narrate his own biopic, but that, coupled with clips of his actual Letterman appearances, made me wish that American Splendor was just a straightforward documentary.