In the film we have Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis (Next Stop Wonderland) as Joyce Brabner, and Judah Friedlander (30 Rock) as Toby Radloff. However, the real life Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Toby Radloff also appear as themselves, sometimes commenting on the events in the movie. They are credited as “the real [name]”.
introduces his character – “OK. This guy here, he's our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he's a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he's lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he's now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you're the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day... guess what? You've got the wrong movie.” The way the real Harvey delivers the lines also tells you a lot about him. Harvey
Giamatti then takes over the role. We see him in the 1960s meet and befriend a man named Robert Crumb. If you know anything about comics, you will recognize the name. For those who don’t know who he is, Crumb was one of the pioneering Underground Comics creators. It’s his later success that inspires
to try his hand at writing comics. He can’t draw worth a damn, though, so all he has are his ideas. One day he shows them to Crumb, who is quite taken with them. Crumb actually asks Harvey if he can illustrate some of them for him. Harvey is about as close to happy as he has probably ever been in his life. Harvey
He self-publishes these comics over several years and this brings him to the attention of Joyce Brabner, who is a fan of them. She contacts him, they exchange some letters, they meet, and a week later they are married. He’s a unique guy, so you can figure that it would take a pretty unique woman to be with him. My favorite line in the film is when the two meet face to face.
says to her, “You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy.” According to the real Harvey and Joyce, that really happened. Just to show they were made for each other, on their first date Joyce is the one who tells Harvey that they should just skip the dating part of the relationship and go right to the getting married part. Harvey
Included in the comics are
’s friend Toby Radloff and some of the conversations the two of them have. At one point during the film we see the real Harvey and the real Toby very seriously discussing the merits of different flavor jellybeans, while Giamatti and Friedlander look on in amusement. It was a real exchange and according to Giamatti, he didn’t even know he was being filmed at the time because it was between takes. Harvey
The film adds another level with a scene of Giamatti as
Harvey and Davis as Joyce sitting in an audience watching a play based upon ’s American Splendor comics. In the play, Donal Logue plays Harvey Pekar and Molly Shannon plays Joyce Brabner. The real Harvey comments on how strange it was to see his life being portrayed by someone else in a play, then goes on to speculate on how much more strange it will be to watch this very movie when it comes out. In actuality, Harvey and Joyce later wrote a follow-up graphic novel titled Our Movie Year that deals with their experiences. Harvey
In another blend of fantasy and real life, we see Giamatti backstage at Letterman’s show in character as
, winding himself up to go out there and burn all his bridges. When we see Harvey walk on stage and confront Letterman, it’s the real Harvey Pekar. It’s not the actual footage from the incident, though. Twenty years later Letterman was still holding a grudge and refused to allow that footage to be used in the film. It had to be recreated. Harvey
’s small amount of notoriety in the 1980s, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) tried to adapt the comic American Splendor into a movie, but he wasn’t a big enough name yet. Harvey
Both Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis do great jobs in their roles. I feel that Giamatti especially deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance. When he didn’t receive one that was when I started thinking that there may be something to that rumor that the Academy hates him. The film did end up getting an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it did win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
I mentioned my favorite line up above. My favorite soliloquy by the real Harvey Pekar occurred when he talked about how one day he noticed another “Harvey Pekar” in the phone book. He had a really unique name, so he wondered who this other man was and what his story was. The man died without
ever meeting him. Harvey said this made him sad and concludes by asking, “Who is Harvey Pekar?” That is really the overarching theme of his work in the comic and in this film. Harvey
I have to say, this movie made me a lot more interested in reading the American Splendor comics. I picked up several of the collections and they do fill in a lot more about who Harvey Pekar was. I say “was” because
passed away July 12, 2010 from cancer. The 2003 movie includes scenes where he has his first bout with cancer, which he wins. In a parallel to the soliloquy in the movie, when I read about his death I felt sad. Even though I had never met the man, I felt I had come to know him some via his comics and this movie. If you want to meet a truly interesting individual then I highly recommend this film. Harvey
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Graphic Novel Our Cancer Year Our Movie Year