Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti star in American Splendor Courtesy photo
Harvey Pekar's real-life cartoons are acted out as real life on screen

If a viewer were to go to see American Splendor knowing only that it was based on a comic book, he might understandably think he knew what he was getting. There have certainly been enough comic book flicks in the last few years; he might even make it past the film poster without noticing a surprising absence of Lycra and capes. But the film's opening scene would set the unwary viewer straight: A handful of kids, dressed as Batman, Superman, et al, walk up to a door on Halloween. The housewife doles out the treats while admiring the costumes, but stops short at the last kid, who is clad in nothing but his secondhand street clothes and a scowl. Well, lady? his grimace says. I ain't no muscleman. Are you gonna make with the candy, or what?

Welcome to the real-life world of Harvey Pekar: file clerk in a VA hospital, devout record collector, and astute critic of the modern world. For around 20 years, Pekar has chronicled the telling details of a schmo's life in ("From off the streets of Cleveland ..." the covers always proclaim, in a stance between pomp and self-effacement.) With the help of sometime illustrator Robert Crumb, the comic has not only drawn a cult following but also inspired a generation of cartoon chroniclers of the commonplace. Many of his successors are worthy, but Pekar's personality is all his own: grumpy but not unkind, reclusive yet concerned with the state of the world, in-the-know but decidedly unhip.

Actor Paul Giamatti, who was a stand-in for a different sort of outsider artist in Storytelling, has Pekar down pat. The hunched shoulders and luckless mannerisms are ripped from the magazine's pages; the hoarse, worried voice evokes the artist without exactly sounding like him. Hope Davis outdoes Giamatti for frumpiness, hiding beneath a black wig and thick glasses to play Harvey's wife Joyce.

American Splendor
Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini; writ. Berman, Pulcini, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner; feat. Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Earl Billings, Judah Friedlander, Pekar, Brabner (R)
Early on, the filmmakers capture the precise vibe of some of Pekar's best-known scenes; his workplace interaction with a middle-aged black man named Mr. Boats, for instance, is not only faithful to the comic's look but a good encapsulation of its outlook on popular culture. But Berman and Pulcini aren't only interested in dramatizing what's on the page. As the comic itself is self-referential, they occasionally let the movie twist back on itself and focus on the actual Pekar and Brabner. In an especially graceful scene, the camera pulls away from the actors reenacting a scene to reveal the real-life men being depicted, who then begin to overshadow the recreation; eventually, the cast takes a break while Pekar and his buddy ramble.

Oddly intriguing moments like that taper off as the film's events become more involving - Pekar is diagnosed with cancer, and the tale becomes less quirky than dramatic. These "straight" sections may lag a bit, just as Pekar and Brabner's graphic novel Our Cancer Year was less compelling than its short-form predecessors. But the directors know how to go out gracefully, capping part of Pekar's real-life saga with a scene his fans have hoped for all these years. It ain't always splendid, but it's a slice of honest Americana rarely seen onscreen. •