American Splendor; Dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini. 2003. Paul Giamatti.

In suburban Cleveland, 1950, a housewife hands out Halloween candy to kids dressed up as superheroes; one has no costume, and when she questions him, he throws his arms up and trudges off, muttering why everyone has to be so stupid.  So begins this mixed-media biopic about a classic American loser, Harvey Pekar.  The familiar postmodern conceit of celebrating the life of an individual with dubious claims to fame finds poignant expression here, as footage of the real Harvey Pekar and his equally misfit friends and family is interspersed with scenes of Paul Giamatti’s endearingly grumpy character.  In 1975, dumped by his wife and living in a flat cluttered by an addiction to collecting jazz records and books, Harvey is a VA hospital clerk moonlighting as a comic book writer.  He borrows the talents of his old friend and underground comic sensation R. Crumb to flesh out his stick-figure story lines about his life as a nobody.  When he’s eventually “discovered” by David Letterman, himself a collector of oddities, we learn that fame is powerless to uplift those who are rooted to their own modest ambitions.  While the story has some predictable elements – the celebration of the nerd ethos is underlined by an actual outing to Revenge of the Nerds, he finds love in equally misfit Joyce (“she’s got good-lookin’… handwriting”), and a cancer episode that seems only to add to the surfeit of whining – you can’t help rooting for a humble curio who uses allusions to the Treasure of Sierra Madre and Theodore Dreiser in order to cast himself within the tradition of lowly American dreamers who make their own rules.

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