In their first narrative feature, documentary makers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have magically conveyed to the screen the prickly world of comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, Cleveland native, V.A. hospital clerk, jazz lover, reader, yard-sale buff--and world-class curmudgeon. You need not be a devotee of underground comics to embrace this husband-and-wife team's hilarious, subversive film.

Enlisting the help of artist Robert Crumb, Pekar backed into the project of fashioning comics from the minutiae of his daily life, exempting no experience as too trivial or incorrect, holding back nothing. The pioneering Pekar was recording it all with his 'home movies' before camcorders and reality TV, using a medium commonly dominated by supermen, to express the trials of a working-class shlepper. The result was the comic book American Splendor, which bowed in 1976.

Winner of the 2003 Jury Prize at Sundance, the film based on Pekar and his work travels on multiple tracks. There's the comic-strip and animated Harvey; the 'movie' Harvey of the main narrative, played by the hugely gifted Paul Giamatti; and the real Harvey Pekar and wife Joyce, contributing cameos as themselves. Add to the mix archival footage of Pekar's infamous appearances on David Letterman's show. The film's formal inventiveness is breathtaking. At the same time, this anti-biopic traces an almost conventional dramatic arc of one man's pursuit of happiness: A pudgy loser living in dingy quarters crammed to the ceiling with books and LPs, Harvey fumbles his way toward salvation by forging an outlet for self-expression. He achieves modest success. After two busted marriages, he meets his soulmate Joyce (Hope Davis), part-owner of a comic store (greeting her in a bus depot with the opener, 'I've had a vasectomy'; she in turn confides that everyone in her family has a degenerative disease). Harvey triumphs over cancer by recording his ordeal in a graphic novel. And he even ends up with an unlikely nuclear family.

The film mines off-center humor from the sheer weirdness of the folks it chronicles. (Think Todd Solondz, but less cruel.) I can conjure few funnier scenes in recent cinema than those of Harvey and Joyce's courtship. Other comic riffs involve Harvey's interactions with a co-worker who fixates on the film Revenge of the Nerds as the long-awaited vindication of people like him. 'I'm getting hitched,' Harvey tells him. 'I tend to get married fast because I'll take any woman that will have me.' Giamatti's expression and body language are pitch-perfect--he always looks poised to endure some fresh hell--and Davis, in round black glasses and lank hair, matches him in goofball antics. American Splendor is even uplifting in its fashion, telling all the invisible drones imprisoned in dead-end jobs that they, too, can release their creativity. Seldom have grouches, misfits and, yes, nerds seemed so endearing.

--Erica Abeel