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The Adventures of Everyman

It’s a bum. It’s a loser. It’s Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”

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What better way to tell the story of the doggedly authentic Harvey Pekar, a man who attempted in the pages of his comics to capture life, clear and unmuddied by romantic phoniness. Likewise, the film gives us the unadulterated loner, a shabbily dressed, out-of-shape cheapskate insecure with his job at the VA hospital but afraid to do anything about it. Harvey’s lot is defeatist discontent, which he reduces to a tag line in the morning mirror: “There’s a reliable disappointment.”

Giamatti wears Harvey’s sweaty old coat with a convincing combination of slouching gloom and baggy-eyed pessimism. “He doesn’t look anything like me, but whatever,” the real-life Harvey notes flatly. Giamatti channels his slouching spirit just the same.

The film begins with great energy, bounding along to the beat of bouncing jazz songs and innovative visual techniques — split screens and dialogue bubbles that underscore the real life of Harvey, who haunts garage sales for rare jazz and comics.

Harvey decides to do something about his uninspired life, to make his mark in 1976 after a chance meeting with the comic illustrator Robert Crumb, played with understated weirdness by James Urbaniak. Crumb’s work convinces Harvey that comics could be a vehicle for real life as much as superheroes, narrated by a hero who isn’t powerful or phony, or even likeable — an unglamorous everyschlep like himself. Together they create “American Splendor,” a confessional series that might be the world’s first blog.

The odd comics bring Harvey a modicum of fame, landing him a recurring guest spot on “Late Night with David Letterman” and eventually this movie. We only get small bits of the pages within the film, but then that might be a blessing considering their contents. Deep thoughts like “I lost my keys” and “Tomorrow’s a new day” are mildly amusing against the wondrously impious backdrop of R. Crumb illustrations, but they eventually lose their charm against the backdrop of Cleveland.

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini do well to overcome the constant obstacle to excitement that is Harvey, who’s intent on proving how dull and pointless life is. Mostly they make us laugh. Harvey’s third marriage, to wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), is a speedy and humorous affair — the would-be whirlwind romance ends up more like a 24-hour flu, with lingering symptoms.

Also on the scene offering plenty of hilarity are Harvey’s friends, notably self-described nerd Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander). Acting borderline mentally retarded, Friedlander seems to overplay the role until the real Toby shows up and is worse.

These scenes are a riot, but sometimes preciousness comes at the expense of finer points, like explaining the gaping chasm between the younger, dramatized Harvey and the real-life aging man. Who is this guy? No one seems to get him. Not even Letterman, who merely sees in Harvey’s simple, combative nature the perfect foil. Even Harvey seems disinterested by the time filming starts, admitting that he didn’t even read the screenplay about his own life.

But then most of the people populating this film are contradictory, and their honest depiction makes us all the more uncomfortable. Harvey Pekar wouldn’t have it any other way. ***1/2 S

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