My life as a file clerk

'American Splendor' chronicles the life of underground comic-strip writer and file clerk Harvey Pekar

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

American Splendor" breaks all the rules. It's part fictionalized biopic, part full-fledged biography. It has excellent actors playing the main characters, and it has segments with the real-life characters themselves.

It even hops into animation at times, which is appropriate since the hero is Harvey Pekar, known - well, not to millions, but to comic-book cultists everywhere - as the writer of underground comics illustrated by such legendary pop artists as R. Crumb.

All of this is highly unusual at a time when most comic books - and nearly all the movies based on them - traffic in fantasy and frivolity. But there's unassailable logic to the movie's approach, since Mr. Pekar is one of the pioneers who helped free comics from the realm of unrestrained whimsy, making his stories plug directly into the very real world we live in.

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As the film reveals, he has dwelt in a notably modest corner of that world - working as a file clerk until his recent retirement, and supplementing his meager income with freelance comic-book stories and articles on popular culture.

But to him, that world is far larger than Hollywood. "I don't see film as a medium as large as comics," Pekar said in his halting yet no-nonsense manner at the Cannes Film Festival. "Comics are a very large medium, because you can use any word in the dictionary ... and any art style you want. I don't see comics as limited to anything."

Does he feel uncomfortable with the self-exposure that comes from a movie based directly on his day-to-day experiences, complete with his unconventional courtship of his wife, Joyce Brabner, and the unconventional adoption of their daughter, who's also in the film?

Here, the cheerfully eccentric Ms. Brabner chimed in. "We're used to it," she says. "In 'Our Cancer Year' [a Pekar-Brabner comic], we showed ourselves having a furious argument while we were naked and sick. You can't get more self-exposure than that. We take comics very seriously, and we want them to tell the truth."

From all accounts, the "American Splendor" movie - based on a Pekar comic book of that title - tells the truth in all its crazy, paradoxical glory.

There's Harvey hobnobbing with the celebrated Mr. Crumb, then returning to the mountains of files and peculiar pals he sees every day at work. There he is sabotaging his blink-of-an-eye fame on "The David Letterman Show" because cooperating with the show-biz establishment makes him antsy.

There he is showing genuine compassion for what may be the story's most touching figure, a mentally slow man who discovers a proud new sense of dignity when he sees "Revenge of the Nerds" and realizes he's not a one-of-a-kind weirdo after all.

"American Splendor" alternates between reenacted scenes starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis and interview segments featuring the people they're playing. Filmed and acted to near perfection, it's one of the year's most innovative and exciting pictures.

"I'm kinda like a class-clown type of guy ... with all these shticks that I do," Pekar says.

The movie elevates those shticks into life-affirming art - and entertainment - as invigorating as anything I've seen in ages.

Rated R; contains vulgarity and adult situations.

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