A chewable bone thrown to the famished fans of Ghost World, with a protagonist closely related to the latter's Steve Buscemi in his marginal existence, his menial job, his obliviousness or out-and-out resistance to fashion, his patronage of yard sales, his esoteric record collection, his congenital negativity. One difference, of course, is that the present protagonist is an actual living person, one Harvey Pekar, a 365-days-a-year sourpuss, sorehead, and bellyacher ("I don't know how to be positive"), and a lifelong file clerk at a V.A. hospital in Cleveland, who eventually became the protagonist of a series of autobiographical underground comics also titled "American Splendor" (illustrated by various hands, starting with R. Crumb), and who by that avenue became the sometime foil of David Letterman and the full-time husband of one Joyce Brabner, a "self-diagnosed anemic" and all-around hypochondriac, who began as a fan of the comics and wound up as a character in them and a collaborator on them. Another difference from the Buscemi character is that this one, center-stage the entire time, must carry the whole load by himself. And even though Paul Giamatti, the very epitome of a supporting player, relishes his chance at a lead, he's a bit of a one-note, a bit of a stickler about always staying "in character." The danger of him thus seeming to be putting on an act is that he seems to be insinuating that Pekar too is putting on an act. Our respect for the man teeters in the balance. In covering the complete biographical arc at one sitting, the film inevitably deviates from the amorphous daily minutiae in which the comic books wallow. It comes to resemble instead a conventional American success story -- however modest or ironic or parodistic a one -- with a suspiciously rosy ending after a climactic battle against cancer. The infiltration of the action with other likenesses of the hero -- the real Harvey Pekar behind the scenes and in voice-over, the real Pekar in archival clips from the Letterman show (major exception: his ill-tempered meltdown on the air must be re-enacted by Giamatti and a silhouetted stand-in for Letterman), along with assorted comic-book incarnations of Pekar -- feels not so much artistically bold and daring and liberated as artistically casual, capricious, slovenly. Maybe, in smaller concentrations, there's something bold and daring and liberated inherent in those very qualities, and in any event they certainly suit the protagonist. With Hope Davis; written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. (2003) — Duncan Shepherd
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