REVIEW: The Extra Man [2010]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: July 30th, 2010 (USA)
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Writer(s): Robert Pulcini & Jonathan Ames & Shari Springer Berman / Jonathan Ames (novel)

“You may write my biography, but you will never capture my soul”

Over the past two years I’ve become acquainted with the work of writer Jonathan Ames through his subtly brilliant comic noir “Bored to Death” on HBO. Naming the protagonist after himself, the young novelist—played by Jason Schwartzman—is a mess of neuroses and a man of eccentric proclivities who’s friends are a bullish depressive and a youthful older colleague and mentor. One can see striking similarities to those tropes in the new film from American Splendor directors, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, based upon Ames’s novel of the same name, The Extra Man. Except there is one huge difference—the characters inhabiting this world are completely insane. And while that statement is hyperbolic, it isn’t necessarily untrue. Subtlety is thrown out the window for the author’s doppelganger in Paul Dano’s Louis Ives and his landlord/teacher of aristocratic ways in NYC without a penny to his name—in other words, a gigolo—Kevin Kline’s Henry Harrison. But we shouldn’t be crass; Henry is an ‘extra man’, yet most essential.

Ames doesn’t neglect to wear his inspirations glaringly on his sleeve. The film opens to Ives partaking in a vignetted fantasy inside a world mirroring the 1920s, himself readying for the visit of a lady brought by carriage to his estate. It may be a dream, but the old soul retains the air of a gentleman in his everyday actions as a teacher of literature at Princeton. Fitzgerald is a hero of his and The Great Gatsby his current read, a tale we’ll soon see parallels the film unraveling before us. Ives does have one obvious aberration to the upright noble he aspires towards—while fancying himself a gentleman, he oftentimes wishes for the reflection of a young girl to stare back from the mirror. Unsure of his lot in life because of this draw to femininity, fired for acting the fantasy out, Ives finally gathers the courage to migrate to New York, donning his best Nick Carraway persona in search for answers. What he finds, though, is quite the odd incarnation of Jay Gatsby. Harrison may look the part with fancy clothes, stories of billionairesses, and perfect elocution, but his truth is much more absurdist comedy than I remember from Fitzgerald. And he is the biggest sexist alive … not so good for a wannabe cross-dresser.

The obvious homage, blatantly laid before us to filter the film through, don’t end up hindering the plot because of the infused humor subverting the joie de vivre of our two leads. In fact, it is the comedy that threatens to derail everything by being too over-the-top. Each player in this farce purposely becomes a broad caricature, adding to the heightened reality set forth by its severely dry narration, a voiceover that invades Ives’s thoughts whenever there’s a lull in conversation, and actually interrupts once someone begins talking again. Louis’s constant questioning of his own identity prevents him from seeing the world around him with any sincerity, instead watching as though a player inside a game to which he doesn’t yet know the rules. Lies are prevalent in his life, helping land a job as a phone salesman with a local magazine he hopes to one day write or edit. Pretending to be ‘green’, he finds himself out of his element, attempting to woo an attractive co-worker, Mary (Katie Holmes), who is vegan and forever judging his lifestyle as it ceaselessly contradicts his fabricated self.

Rather than help find a moral center and the freeing capacity of truth, Henry only drags him down further. An enigma himself, this ‘extra man’ does all he can to leech off the kindness of wealthy widows as an escort bringing balance to the alternating male/female pattern at society events. Paid with good meals, fine culture, and somewhere to go at night, he is not one for physical companionship, instead using the status of aristocracy as a stand-in mistress to cheat on the women he accompanies. He loves what the women allow him to be, yet his feelings towards them are genuine and his belief in the system strong enough to lend his talents onto the protégées he harbors as roommates. Always guarded, always rude, and yet somehow endearing in a strange way, Kevin Kline plays up the theatrics while retaining enough broken humanity to keep the part from going too far into surrealism. Once a hunchbacked old apprentice and John C. Reilly’s beastly handyman, Gershon, with homeless hair, castrated vocal octave, and beautiful singing voice are introduced, it becomes very hard not to get lost in the alternate reality. There may be kooks in NYC, but this stuff is another level of unreal.

While Kline teeters between relationships, Holmes becomes increasingly more grating as environmentalist of the year, and Reilly embodies the stereotypical misunderstood soul, it is Dano’s struggling writer, budding ‘extra’, and possible homosexual—or at least transvestite—who needs to carry the burden of every insanity written into the script. He visits a Recesionist Spankers (Patti D’Arbanville); befriends the woman equivalent of Henry, looking for free boarding in Palm Beach (Celia Weston); and actually shows one elderly woman (Marian Seldes) that a true gentleman from a bygone era can still exist. In the right setting Dano could pull off the trick; there is just too much happening around him, overshadowing the true reason there’s a movie at all. Louis Ives is an ‘extra man’ to his own life, unwittingly sabotaging his ability to succeed in any of the disparate paths he may be drawn towards. Unfortunately, despite a myriad of issues, he isn’t even the most interesting character in this pageantry of deceit. And while The Extra Man ultimately fails because of its own unsure identity, I can’t deny its worth by Ames improving upon it to evolve into the HBO series I’ve grown to really enjoy.

[1] Kevin Kline in THE EXTRA MAN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo
courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Katie Holmes and Paul Dano in THE EXTRA MAN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] John C. Reilly stars as Gershon in Magnolia Pictures’ The Extra Man (2010)

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