"The unexamined life is not worth living." If Socrates had not said those words, they could have come from Harvey Pekar. The inventive and wildly entertaining film about Pekar's life in theaters this week demonstrates that very principle.

Pekar is many things. If you have heard of him, then you probably encountered him on the David Letterman show or as the writer and central character (but not the artist) of a series of comic books called American Splendor. Nevertheless, Pekar has spent most of his adult life as a file clerk, surrounded by people that society seems to overlook.

What sets Pekar apart from other comic book authors—indeed, from most artists of any kind—is his attention to the details of ordinary lives, to losers and "average folks," to menial activity and common conversation. As he focuses on these details, he discovers the epic, the tragic, and the comic in everyday life. His humor is tinged with bitterness, sadness, irony, and sarcasm, but it also glows with affection for unglamorous people.

The new film American Splendor, written and directed by devoted Pekar fans Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, portrays the grouchy, cantankerous, philosophical cartoonist in a variety of ways. Pekar starts off as cartoon character, which then comes to life through an inspired performance by Paul Giamatti. Finally, the real Harvey arrives to play himself. Pekar narrates his own film in his unique laryngitic rasp, reading a script that others wrote about his life. It's a bold approach, and it succeeds brilliantly, thanks to clever screenwriting and a talented cast.

Even though Pekar's strange rise to fame develops into a familiar fight-with-cancer drama, the film is never less than engaging. Most of the time it is surprising, ...

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