Is there a finer actor on the planet than Hope Davis? She makes every role her own as she becomes someone wholly new. From the doomed Brooke in Arlington Road (1999) to the fractious Dana in The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003), wistful Erin in Next Stop Wonderland (1998) to pitch-perfectly defiant Jeannie Schmidt in About Schmidt (2002), Davis shows a range so subtle and complex that makes her every performance a beauty, even when the films around her are not.
As Joyce Brabner, Davis is again superb, and nearly unrecognizable behind big horn-rimmed glasses and black bangs. Joyce first appears in American Splendor, working in a Delaware comic book store and teaching prisoners to write (or, as she puts it, she’s “trying to help them build an interior life”). From her first moments on screen, Joyce walks a weird, thin line, between practical-minded and loopy, fanatically insecure and completely generous, shrewd and naïve. In the flesh — in Davis’ flesh, and even in her own, as she appears briefly in the film — Joyce at first resembles a comic character, as if she’s been conjured by her husband, cranky cult comic-book writer Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti).
She becomes increasingly complex, less a function of his perspective (and the film that takes that perspective) and more her own creature, pushing beyond his needs and desires, into her own. This even as she is, as she says, “a notorious reformer.” She has her work cut out for her, as the first part of the film establishes Harvey’s general situation, from the 1950s through 1976, when the first edition of the autobiographical American Splendor comics was published.
Written by Harvey and illustrated by his artist friends, American Splendor details the difficulties of everyday life, including his filing job at the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration hospital, his coworkers — nerdy, jelly-bean-loving devout Catholic Toby (Judah Friedlander) and grumpy boss Boats (Earl Billings) — his love of jazz 78s and his friendship with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), who worked briefly as a commercial artist at a Cleveland greeting card company during the 1960s. He’s also unspeakably lonely: “Sometimes,” he observes, “I’d feel a body next to me like an amputee feels a phantom limb.”
By the time Joyce comes to Cleveland for their first date, you’ve seen enough of Harvey’s “grumpy guy” demeanor to not be surprised by his greeting at the train station: he announces “right off the bat” that he’s had a vasectomy. From here, he takes her to a chain restaurant, then to his apartment. He apologizes for his sloppiness, they chat, and she shuffles to the bathroom to throw up. he stands on the other side of the door, sorry that he doesn’t have tea to offer her. Whereupon they agree, they “should just dump the whole courtship thing and just get married.”
Appropriately, given its irascible subject, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s movie is shrewdly unwieldy, dipping in and out of Harvey’s narration and scenes where he’s played flawlessly by Giamatti, comic panels that come to animated life, and pomo pullbacks. Here, for instance, the-real-Pekar appears talking head-style to discuss the strangeness of participating in a film about his life and art, or when the camera shows that the scene previous has been shot on a set (itself artificial, too white and clean), where Friedlander and Giamatti step out of character, as the real Radloff and Pekar discuss jellybean flavors.
Perhaps most striking among these multi-layered moments are those featuring Pekar’s fabled 1980s’ spots on Late Night with David Letterman. For these, the film incorporates old NBC footage (with the real Pekar and the real Letterman), which Joyce watches from the green room (she’s progressively more unhappy with what she sees as Harvey’s mistreatment, and moves on to her own interests), hawking the Harvey ragdolls she’s made. Then Giamatti as Pekar comes backstage to ask Joyce what she thinks. After a few runs at this structure, the movie reaches Pekar’s final appearance on the show in 1994 — when he famously disparaged NBC, GE, and Letterman for being a corporate shill. The episode never aired, and the movie runs it as a reenactment, a curiously jarring effect, as the other interviews have not been.
This jarringness makes its own point, namely that Pekar’s self-performance, however discordant, is perpetual. Indeed, the film suggests, everyone performs a self (or selves), whether on tv talk shows, on the job or at home, in comic book panels or movies. “Different artists draw me all kinds of ways,” says Pekar during one of his direct addresses to the camera. “But I’m also a real guy.” The question here is how that “real” guy might possibly be interpreted (perceived or drawn) by anyone, including himself.
And if such interpretation is part and parcel of art — popular and underground, if there’s a difference once a film about that underground wins prizes at Sundance and Cannes — then the question might shift, to how that real guy might be sold and bought. While American Splendor‘s Harvey complains vigorously about the commercialization of art (this supposedly initiates his last Letterman rant), he is, of course, taking advantage of his own celebrity in order to have a forum for complaining. He rails against popular culture generally, and associates like Toby specifically — when Toby, made famous in Pekar’s comics, appears in a self-spoof for MTV, then reenacted for the movie, the representational circle seems painfully complete, or at least worn out.
As clever and slippery as these moments are, illustrating that the “real” Pekar is as elusive as any performance of Pekar, they don’t offer any more insight into that elusiveness than those featuring Pekar and Joyce. As they spar and care for one another, it becomes clear that “truth” is a malleable, exploitable, and utterly necessary fiction.
That this idea — the sometimes surprising ways that truth changes even as you think you’re looking at it — emerges most forcefully in a poignant turn of events is at once trite and fitting. So furiously determined to avoid dramatic clichés, to stay focused on mundane minutiae, poor Pekar has his life changed in a totally dramatic way. On learning that he has testicular cancer, he’s stricken: “Life,” he sighs, “seemed so sad and so sweet and so hard to let go of in the end.” As much as he’s disposed to give up, Joyce flies into action, arguing, researching, fighting back. He’s swept along, so that his routine flies into “total chaos.”
To make their turmoil even vaguely coherent, he and Joyce narrate it, in a ravishingly private-made-public graphic novel, Our Cancer Year. The illustrator who works with them happens to have a daughter, Danielle (Madylin Sweeten), with whom Joyce forms a singular bond. This may be the most improbable shift of all, that Pekar finds himself — or better, his several selves — in those who love him. For a dour, cynical guy, he does okay: even this corniness works out, because his primary mirror is the undefeatable Joyce by way of Hope Davis.