American Splendor

A movie review about a documentary of a federal employee working for the VA in Cleveland, OH

One doesn’t often see a movie about the daily trials and tribulations of an average (or below-average) federal employee. If you have been waiting for the opportunity, here is your chance. Be warned: This is a documentary (of sorts) and you may not appreciate the portrayal. On the other hand, it is an unusual movie you won’t forget as soon as you leave the theatre.

Harvey Pekar worked for the Veterans Administration in Cleveland, Ohio as a file clerk from 1966-2001 when he retired. Pekar himself is portrayed in American Splendor as a chronic complainer dissatisfied with his job, his life, and apparently incapable of being happy in life or love. He is a grumpy, obsessive-compulsive, jazz-loving, twice-divorced, comic-book collector going nowhere. Think of an unsophisticated Woody Allen living in a dirty, disheveled Cleveland apartment.

Pekar’s claim to fame came from his success as a writer of comic books. He was not satisfied with the ones he was reading and wanted to detail some of the daily events of his life and turned these events into a comic book with the help of a talented friend and animator.

Apparently his fellow VA employees liked seeing themselves written up in comic books. Pekar’s original depiction of everyday events at work and in his life through the comics developed a cult following and earned him a few trips to talk with David Letterman. While he achieved some celebrity, apparently fortune did not follow as he continued to work at the VA as a file clerk detailing the foibles of his fellow employees in his comics and complaining about the low pay.

Federal human resources specialists and federal managers will undoubtedly cringe at the scenes of Pekar writing comics while “working” at the VA hospital with little or no supervision and no apparent motivation to accomplish much besides writing comic books.

Pekar is an an early, darker version of Seinfeld who ultimately sees himself as speaking out for the underclass in America unhappy and alienated from their jobs and their lives.

American Splendor has achieved success in part because of the inventive documentary approach taken by the directors. This is confusing in print but makes sense on the screen. Pekar himself appears in the film at several points and his voice is also on the film. Occasionally an animated version of Pekar appears as well as an actor portraying the neurotic Pekar. The result is part comic book, part drama, and part documentary.

The movie is definitely not for everyone but the originality of the film won recognition at the Cannes Film Festival and it also garnered top prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

While it is not uplifting or pretty, this is probably the only opportunity you will have to see a documentary about a file clerk working for a VA hospital. If you are tempted, American Splendor was just released on DVD.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47