A Life More Ordinary

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Depression is — well, yes — a depressing topic. It costs the nation gazillions annually in medical bills and in man-hours lost to, and we're speaking literally here, downtime.

Yet there is this paradox about it: it's one of our most reliable sources of laughter, the subject of, just last year, some of our most interesting and weirdly entertaining movies. Punch-Drunk Love, Adaptation and About Schmidt are all bleak comedies about emotionally stunned or stunted people trying, in their herky-jerky ways, to avoid a completely comatose condition.

To their number we must now add American Splendor, which is technically a biopic about a guy named Harvey Pekar. Who, you ask, is Harvey Pekar? And why should he rate a biopic when I don't? (That second question qualifies you as a perfect audience for this movie.) But as written and directed by the wife-husband team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the film is concerned mainly with the first question, the shortish answer to which is that Pekar was, until his retirement in 2001, a file clerk in a Veterans Affairs hospital, a housekeeping-challenged resident of the grimmer reaches of Cleveland, Ohio, and a man whose soon-to-be wife threw up immediately upon making out with him for the first time.

Pekar, who occasionally appears as himself in the film but is mostly played (brilliantly) as a sort of hand-cranked motormouth by Paul Giamatti, is a guy who hears America squawking and whining and choking on its own bile. Befriended by such comics artists as R. Crumb, Pekar starts turning out stories for them to illustrate. These anticomics, from which American Splendor gets its title, together with some appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, grant him underground fame but never enough money to quit his day job.

Which is a good thing. You stop shopping for your own groceries, and you lose touch with your material — and perhaps your misery, which for Pekar includes a bout of stomach cancer. Although for Harvey, there's always his wife, Joyce, played with a divine combination of sympathy, spaciness and bitchiness by Hope Davis, to keep him in touch with his inner querulousness.

Berman and Pulcini have devised a perky-quirky style to tell Pekar's story, blending documentary material, comic panels and some editing tricks to create a kind of bipolar movie, not exactly haha funny but true to life — at least, to life on that unlevel playing field where Pekar (and millions like him) does his level best to keep going.