Revenge of the Nerd


American Splendor (2003) Review 5
Director:Robert PulciniShari Berman,
Starring:Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, James Urbaniak, Judah Friedlander
Length:101 minutes


“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” So states the tag line for the film “American Splendor,” which is based upon the life and comic books of Harvey Pekar, perhaps the most famous shlub in the world. It may be complex, but as both the film and the comics show us, ordinary life is truly not much more than ordinary. Sometimes, however, ordinary is enough. Sometimes, in fact, it is heartbreaking, beautiful, even hilarious. How does the old saying go? “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Never was a truer phrase uttered. With the unending parade of “reality” TV series trying to tell us that life is some sort of fraternity or sorority party where everyone tries to screw (literally and figuratively) his or her neighbor, it is refreshing to see a film that proves what the rest of us know: life is, more often than not, a total drag.

At the top of the film, we meet Harvey Pekar, a file clerk in a VA hospital in Cleveland. Harvey hates his job, his life, and everything around him. And why shouldn’t he? His wife is leaving him, his apartment is a mess, his coworkers are crazy, and he lives in Cleveland. Harvey’s only source of pleasure (and little pleasure at that) comes from finding old blues albums at garage sales. Enter the soon-to-be famous Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak, in a dead-on performance), a fellow collector and underground comics visionary. Harvey and R. strike up a beautiful nerd friendship, which culminates in the creation of a series of comic books detailing the ins and outs of Harvey’s everyday existence.

The rest of the film concerns itself with Harvey’s rise as a counterculture icon, both through his comics and through his now legendary appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman“; his introduction and immediate marriage to Joyce Brabner(Hope Davis); and the creation of “Our Cancer Year,” arguably one of the masterworks of contemporary comic books. In between we get glimpses into his associations with coworkers, most importantly with Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander), a self-described nerd who became an MTV regular; and into Harvey’s feelings about everything from old ladies in checkout lines to the questionable importance of “Revenge of the Nerds” as a true force in nerd unification.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the co-writers and directors, come to this film from a background in documentaries, and that background serves them extremely well. Because Harvey is both a real guy and a fictional character, the filmmakers came up with a novel way of telling his story. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey in the past, Harvey plays himself in a series of present day interviews, and several animated Harveys show up to play the comic book character. What results is a seamless blend of past and present, fiction and nonfiction, that has to be seen to be believed. One would be hard pressed to find a stylistic corollary in modern cinema, and thus, “American Splendor” the film defies definition, just as “American Splendor” the comics did twenty years ago. This is neither documentary nor fiction, drama nor comedy. It is something wholly new and exciting. . .just about as exciting as real life.