All About Harvey Pekar

in 56th Cannes Film Festival

by Tristan de Bourbon-Parme

As he claims at the beginning of the movie, Harvey Pekar is an average guy, a file clerk in a hospital in Cleveland, lonely, bored and lost. Or almost. Because Harvey Pekar was, and is still, famous and has been since the end of the 70’s. In 1976, he began to publish a cartoon autobiography, “American Splendor”. Each year, he writes about his life and draws a cartoon about it, a year in the life of Mr Nobody, his boring work, his meeting with friends, his never ending neuroses.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who are husband and wife, were offered the chance to make a movie about him. The most difficult thing was to do something about this nobody: even if he was famous for a time, and invited onto some celebrated American TV shows. The cartoon mainly shows Harvey Pekar fulminating in the supermarket, queuing for ages behind an old Jewish woman; collecting old vinyl disks in a garage sale; trying to discover the flavor of a candy thanks to its colour. So the directors couldn’t but put some of those moments in the film. But, as Paul Giamatti appears on the screen as the leading character, the fiction quickly turns to something else, quite unpredictable : here comes the voice and the face of the real Harvey Pekar, commentating about the movie, about the actor (“The guy playing me don’t look nothing like me, but whatever.”) and even about his comments. Used in the art of documentary, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini decided to do more than a fiction about this strange and fabulous character: they made a mix of fiction, documentary and cartoon.

It is a successful mix: moving from the documentary, to the cartoon and to the fiction parts, which means alternatively switching from three and even four Harvey Pekars (some sequences of his main appearances in TV shows are included). The rhythm never declines and it holds the attention of the audience throughout. And the right alternance between laughter and despair, makes the movie more than a simple documentary or simple fiction. Finally, in his cartoons, Mr Nobody puts everything about himself, determined to be honest : he shows himself as he is, between the real jerk and the clear-sighted man. Which makes him more human and engaging than ever.