Disgruntled file clerk and social misfit Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) lucks into a degree of fame, if not fortune, when underground comics legend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak) collaborates with him on a comic about his life. Pekar lives in a state of existential misery, desperately lonely and angry about his outsider status. His comics, though, make him a kind of hero to average suffering folks and even bring him a little family by the end of the film (his wife, Joyce Brabner, is wonderfully played by Hope Davis). We are left with the sense that life never has and never will be smooth sailing for Pekar, but the struggle has its own worth and nobility and, in the end, will bring you more than mere surrender ever will. This may be a rather sweet, conventional message for a film that aims to be so subversive and counter-cultural, but it is reassuring all the same.
Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini employ a mix of animation, documentary and bio-pic conventions to relate their story, with varying degrees of success. Showing excerpts of Harvey's actual appearances on the David Letterman Show instead of recreating them with actors is a stroke of genius and I appreciated the unapologetic, direct way these sequences were handled: we see Paul Giamatti waiting in the wings, followed by a cut to the real Harvey walking out onto the stage. At other times, such as having the real Harvey comment on the actor chosen to play him, it seems somewhat contrived and echoes a complaint that he makes during the film of having been co-opted by the system.
All in all, a very entertaining, interesting film with wonderful performances. PS: I can't end my review without mentioning Judah Friedlander's wonderfully quirky, hilarious, and touching performance as uber-nerd Toby Radloff. Certain key characters also appear as themselves during the film.