American movies, after all, don't do ordinary very well—and ordinary has long been Pekar's stock and trade. Set in such unspectacular locales as a grocery-store checkout line or the V.A. hospital where Pekar worked a "day job" as a file clerk from 1966 until his 2001 retirement, his autobiographical comics pay tribute to commonplace struggles and the ugly, inevitable disappointment to which they lead. These are comics steeped in the knowledge that you can live out your days without ever getting what you think you deserve. (Whereas most movies, by selling us on a completely contrary view of reality—one in which adversities are overcome at every turn—perpetrate one of the great white lies of our time.) Yet "our man," as Pekar aptly refers to himself and his fictional alter egos, soldiers on, down but not out, determined to make something meaningful out of his receding hairline, raspy voice and a flabby physique that prompts him to comment, "Now there's a reliable disappointment." Pekar may not look like the indomitable superheroes that are most comics' part and parcel, but in his own odd way he is one—the grumbling avatar of the common man's frustrated hopes and dreams.
In the American Splendor movie that has finally been made, Pekar is sometimes played by himself, sometimes by the brilliant character actor Paul Giamatti (who wriggles and squirms his way into Harvey-ness as though it were a second skin) and sometimes by a black-and-white, two-dimensionally animated drawing that pops up to comment on the action. And it's our great good fortune, and Pekar's, that this movie—which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, followed by the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes—is as true to the dyspeptic spirit of its source as anyone could have imagined. Maybe it's because they've never made a narrative (or, as the case may be, semi-narrative) feature before that the husband-and-wife documentary team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini seem to find the raw materials of filmmaking so fresh and stimulating, innumerable in their potential configurations. They're not the least bit bound by biopic conventions, nor by the idea of making Pekar out to be anything other than exactly what he is: the poet laureate of the depressed, unfulfilled life.
Yet, in dramatizing Pekar's life both before and during the American Splendor days—by showing us his fateful meeting with the illustrator Robert Crumb (superbly mimicked by James Urbaniak), his offbeat courting of his third wife, Joyce Brabner (beautifully interpreted by Hope Davis), and his brave battle against lymphoma in the 1990s—they also show us something more, something Pekar himself (judging from his latest panels, featured in Time Out New York,Entertainment Weekly and this past Sunday's New York Times) may only just be coming to realize. They show us not just the hazards and battles, but the profound rewards that have come from Pekar's forking over of his life to creative endeavor. They show us how sharing his prodigious pessimism with the rest of the world has probably brought him the closest to peace and happiness in this life that a hipster-grouch like Pekar can ever expect to get. Which, when you think about it, isn't so ordinary at all.