August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis

Critic’s Choice

In a summer populated by mutants and monsters, Harvey Pekar is the real-life comic-book hero. The film cleverly combines documentary with drama, so that Pekar, a cartoonist, appears in person but is also played by Giamatti in a career-defining performance. Grubby, chubby and downright schlubby, Pekar is an Everyman who has long since recognized that he is, in his own assessment, “all grown up and going nowhere.” His particular nowhere is Cleveland, where he toils as a lowly file clerk and writes an autobiographical underground comic-book series, called American Splendor, chronicling his woebegone life. Over the course of the film, he meets and marries a fan, writer Joyce Brabner (Davis, in another swell performance), adopts a daughter and fights a serious illness, all with the air of a man who expects the worst from life and isn’t sure he’s happy when he fails to get it.

Written and directed with a sure hand by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Splendor is that rare thing, a movie that shows life as it really is, not as we wish it could be. (R) BOTTOM LINE: Truly splendid

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