Watch now on:
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” said once and future Cavalier Lebron James, announcing his return to his home state in what has been the feel-good story of the season (unless you’re from south Florida). “Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
It’s a good line and a fine sentiment, but if you’re not a professional basketball player making upwards of $42 million, the daily process of doing that work tends to be a backbreaking and soul-crushing slog. Really, there’s only one thing able to transform it into something more profound and transcendent. No, it’s not church, or family, or even a sports championship (though that would be nice). It’s art, and if you have any doubt about that, I implore you to watch 2003’s American Splendor, the greatest film ever set in Cleveland (we’ll table Major League discussion to a later date), and one of the few to celebrate how sustaining it is to simply recognize the agonizing beauty of everyday life.
This unclassifiable biopic-documentary-comic-book-adaptation hybrid dares to burrow deep into the soul of Harvey Pekar, a man who embodies the ethos of that particular corner of the world in a way that the fellow who declared himself King could only hope for.
Like the groundbreaking comics on which the film is based, American Splendor tells the remarkable tale of Pekar’s transformation from depressed, curmudgeonly VA file clerk to a sorta famous, depressed, curmudgeonly VA file clerk. In the process he gains a family that he loves, even though they’re all kind of a pain in the ass (especially his wife Joyce, played by Hope Davis, who is nuttier than he is), and he also gets a little dough, though really not enough considering his pension is not paying what it should. He also gets cancer and beats it. (Eventually, he dies in 2010 of an accidental overdose of antidepressants, according to the Cleveland coroner, but that’s not in the movie.) Here, he is more-or-less happy, I guess, all three of him: the one played masterfully by Paul Giamatti in what must have been one of the more nerve-racking performances of his storied career, by Harvey himself, and briefly by Donal Logue, who’s in pretty much every indie film, so it figures.
This refracting of identity is straight out of Harvey’s wonderful comics, which he scripted with crude stick figures and handed off to accomplished illustrators, like his fellow jazz nut R. Crumb. There is nothing supernatural in his stories: he is an atheist (“You should try believing in something bigger than yourself,” implores his church-going friend Toby, “It might cheer you up”) and while he stumbles across the love of his life, marriage really becomes just another job. If nothing else, Harvey was an ardent defender of reality, forever railing against “Hollywood bullshit” and “magical crap.” And yet the simple telling of his life’s journey is somehow just as uplifting and transforming as anything emanating from the dream factory.
Someday, a larger-than-life statue of Lebron James will stand outside of a place now called Quicken Loans Arena. Harvey’s statue, brought into reality by his widow Joyce, with the help of Kickstarter two years after his death, is two-and-a-half feet tall and sits on a desk by the graphic novels at the Cleveland Heights library, a place where he spent most of his time when he wasn’t home. Hopefully for long-suffering Cleveland sports fans, Lebron’s story will have a magical ending. Still, I’m thinking Harvey would approve. “I’ve had enough bad experiences and growth to last me plenty,” he says in the film, speaking on behalf of all in Northeast, Ohio. “Right now, I’d be glad to trade some growth for happiness.”