‘American Splendor’ Like A Diamond On A Dunghill, By Kurt Loder

In the lobby after the premiere, all you could hear was people saying how it was the best American movie of the year.

NEW YORK — There was a premiere screening of “American Splendor” at a theatre in Chelsea on Tuesday night, and in the lobby crush afterward all you could hear was people saying how it was the best American movie of the year. I heard myself saying it a couple times, actually.

(Click to see “American Splendor” photos. )

The buzz continued as we all meandered over to the afterparty, which was held in a downtown loft that was big enough to park a pair of Learjets in. A DJ was spinning swank jazz sides, in keeping with the musical style of the movie, and a woman inside the door was greeting people with some sort of vodka concoction made with Orange Crush, a brand of soda that I understand people somewhere actually drink. I tried a sip. It was vile.

“American Splendor” is based on the autobiographical comic-book series of that name by Harvey Pekar, a proto-shlub possible genius who chronicles the dim lowlife scene of his native Cleveland. This may not sound like a promising premise for a movie, especially if you’re not into comics. But the writer-directors of the film, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, have turned it into a droopy-eyed, slump-shouldered classic. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, playing Pekar and his wife, Joyce, are supernaturally attuned to one another; they’re funny and touching, and they disappear into their roles almost totally. Giamatti, until now a busy character actor, gives a breakthrough lead performance as the scowling, irascible Pekar; and Davis’ every look and gesture seem to illuminate some new comical cranny in Joyce’s deadpan, off-kilter personality.

The filmmakers took a major risk by incorporating the real Harvey and Joyce and their oddball Cleveland friends into the film, and by introducing occasional elements of cartoon illustration into the story. This could have been a mess, but it works brilliantly, poetically, unforgettably. In a summer of lumbering, soulless Hollywood blockbusters, “American Splendor” shines out like a diamond on a dunghill.

Anyway, back at the party, the food being walked around among the revelers was of course pure Cleveland, or maybe just pure Harvey: hot dogs, French fries, macaroni and cheese, a classic prole banquet.

I spotted Toby Radloff sitting at a table, signing autographs, it looked like. Toby is Harvey Pekar’s monumentally eccentric friend at the Cleveland VA hospital where they both work (or worked: Harvey’s retired) in dead-end jobs as file clerks. Toby features majorly in the movie, and is — as Anthony Lane put it in a laudatory review in The New Yorker — “an astounding personage.” So true. Toby is very large and very sweet. He speaks in a high, clenched, robotic voice that sounds as if someone had stapled his nostrils together.

Way back in the early ’90s, Toby had been a fixture on MTV News’ “The Week in Rock,” a show I hosted, filing surreal reports from Cleveland as a “Genuine Nerd.” I’d never actually met Toby, but didn’t anticipate that that would be a drawback. Elbowing my way to his table, I bent down over his shoulder and shouted something along the lines of, “Hey, Toby! It’s me! Kurt Loder? MTV?” Without looking up, or even lifting his pen, Toby said, “Pleased to meet you,” and continued signing whatever it was he was signing. Jeez.

Then I spotted Harvey Pekar himself. Harvey used to occasionally drop by the old MTV offices on 57th and Broadway, and I remembered him as being … very real. Or maybe abrasive is the word. A true misanthrope. Wandering through the party, he looked as sour as ever, so I decided not to approach him. My companion did, though. She told me she walked up to him and said, “Harvey! I’m here with Kurt Loder! MTV?” Then she came back to report Harvey’s response: “You’re here with who?” She said he sounded angry. I have to admit I was hurt to hear this.

At the white-clothed bar table I ran into Marc Anthony Thompson, the singer who works under the name Chocolate Genius. Choc sings a slow, super-cool version of the old Marvin Gaye Motown hit “Ain’t That Peculiar” over the end-credits of “American Splendor.” He was strangely willing to talk to me. Then, scanning the room, he offered to introduce me to Chan Marshall, the one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter better known as Cat Power. Excellent! We made our way over to the knot of people in which she was entangled, and Choc attempted an introduction over the hubbub. I’m not sure she noticed. Nevertheless, I stepped forth and offered an admiring estimate of her version of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” on her album The Covers Record. Maybe she didn’t hear me. Or maybe what I actually said was how much I liked her version of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” which is another Velvets song, but not the one she covered. Whatever, when I looked up from my shoes, she was gone.

There seemed to be a theme emerging here. Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s wife, was passing by, and I abruptly positioned myself in her path. Brabner is a very interior sort of person, I think you’d say. I blurted something about how I thought Hope Davis had really nailed her quirky essence in the film, or something like that. Joyce did what I’d like to believe was a very Joycean thing: She walked away. But she left behind Danielle Batone, the now-teenage girl the Pekars semi-adopted many years ago. Danielle was all a-burble at having just met and sort of danced with Sean Astin, the “Lord of the Rings” actor. I was happy for her, I guess.

Finally, I encountered someone willing to admit he knew me: John Cameron Mitchell, the twinkling auteur of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the greatest transvestite glam-rock musical play-and-movie ever mounted. The last time I’d run into John, at some dreary Golden Globes soiree in Los Angeles a couple years back, he’d said he was trying to put together a new movie that melded conventional narrative with hard-core sex. Interesting. Now, as the party started thinning out, he said he was still working on it. He was with a man in pigtails who was apparently shooting experimental footage for the film at occasional “salons” he held in his apartment, where people would get down and have hard-core sex while this fellow wielded his Super-8 camera, or some such antique device not widely seen since the grotty heyday of New York porn in the 1970s. Interesting. I believe there was an unspoken understanding that my companion and I — or at least I — would be welcome to attend one of these gatherings sometime. Upon reflection, I thought not.

Although the night was no longer young, we joined a sizable clutch of desperate party people straggling out the door and down the street to the Half King, a bar co-owned by Sebastian Junger, the guy who wrote “A Perfect Storm.” Junger wasn’t there, but Malcolm McLaren was, looking a little heavier and a lot shorter-haired than he did in the days when he managed the Sex Pistols. He said he was in town to talk up a play based on his 1994 album, Paris, a record universally loathed by critics of the time, and maybe to this day, for all I know. I wished him luck.

Eventually, I went home and went to bed. I woke up the next morning with luminous scenes from “American Splendor” unreeling in my head. I wish this movie luck. Critics have been piling onto it with the most extravagant sort of praise, but will regular moviegoers take the chance of plunking down their 10 bucks to watch a cult-related film about a prickly underground cartoonist of whom they’ve probably never heard? Will they give it the chance it so completely deserves? Will they please?

Kurt Loder