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Heroes of the Zeroes: American Splendor

by on January 15, 2010
 

The Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films from 2000 to 2009.



“American Splendor”
Rated R
2003

Harvey Pekar. Doesn’t sound like a superhero. Never wanted to be, never would be. But he faced down an intriguing question about mortality in his unlikely comic-book career — whether his hand-drawn legacy would outlast his hand-wringing life.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s 2003 biopic about Pekar — who injected schadenfreude into the superhero-comics world with “American Splendor” — wonderfully etched one man’s exploration of using personal misery as a creative outlet and, eventually, a critical coping mechanism.

Pekar’s misanthropy and self-doubt seem developed in vitro. His persistent laryngitis feels like a psychosomatic symptom of nebbishness. In other words, it was a crown-jewel role for Paul Giamatti — who got Pekar’s agitated amble, swarthy scowl, huffy whine and perpetually disappointed frown lines just right.

Ditto for Hope Davis as Pekar’s frittering soulmate, Joyce Babner — as reductive, literary-minded and harried as he is. (The “vasectomy greeting” simply was the most flooring comic-courtship introduction from the Zeroes.)

Berman and Pulcini give us perfect reference points, as the real Pekar narrates and, with Babner, putters around the fringes. (At one point, “Splendor” unravels the layers of exaggerated life by having actors playing the actors playing the real people.)

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” croaks Harvey. He’s right. We often conceal emotions and social codes when discussing great, if ignoble, truths like loneliness, frustration, illness, disappointment and death. But, as he also says, every day’s a brand new deal. We all lose the war, but it’s nice to win a few skirmishes along the way.