Pekar, living in the shadows as a file clerk in Cleveland, first stepped into the spotlight on the old Late Night With David Letterman. Initially he was booked to plug his comic, American Splendor, which elevated mundane misfortunes into the stuff of heartfelt tragedy and told of a bright man better than the dead-end job he could never bring himself to leave. But Letterman, then working between irony's quotation marks, ill-advisedly tried to turn the crank into a cutesy commodity. Scenes from Pekar's appearances show up in American Splendor: We see Paul Giamatti, as Pekar, fidgeting backstage, but the TV footage -- still gloriously discomforting to watch -- is the real thing.
Letterman and Pekar inevitably suffered a bad falling-out; Pekar showed up wearing an anti-General Electric T-shirt and went off on a rambling screed. This episode is reenacted for the film without much context, thereby rendering Pekar something of a self-destructive madman. (Years later, when Pekar wrote jazz reviews for a publication at which I was an editor, he and I also parted ways over regrettable differences about his writing style.) But the Harvey Pekar depicted in Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of American Splendor and Our Cancer Year, the graphic novel Pekar wrote with wife, Joyce Brabner, isn't a crank or a kook. He's a regular guy who crawled up the ladder of success feet first.
Giamatti, most famous as Pig Vomit in Private Parts, furrows his brow, hunches his shoulders and bends his lips into a scowl, but it's just a representation, one of many in a film that also uses an animated Pekar (looking, alternately, like a hunk and a degenerate). But it's the real-life Pekar, seen on a white stage that looks like a comic-book panel, who engages us the most. You almost wish this were a documentary, à la Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. (Pekar's old pal and collaborator Robert Crumb is played here by James Urbaniak.) Pekar narrates and comments from the sidelines; with the real-life Joyce (played in the film by Hope Davis), he alternately mocks what's happening and acknowledges that it ain't so bad seeing your life blown up to the size of a movie screen.
The movie might seem like a mass of post-modern gimmicks, with its thought balloons and comic-panel framing and fourth-wall-busting asides, but it's really a gentle, frank and often hysterical love story. Some of us should be as lucky as Harvey Pekar.