- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Wild Bunch
Reviewed by Bob Westal
f you are one of the very rare people who saw Paul Schrader's film, “The Walker,” or for that matter read Jonathan Ames' 1998 novel, The Extra Man, you know that a class of men exist who are not gigolos but who do provide aging society ladies with a much needed service. Simply by being male and socially acceptable, they assist dowagers in maintaining boy-girl-boy-girl seating at their heavily dated, Brideshead Revisited-esque dinner parties. In return, they get to eat fine food, attend expensive performances, and generally be accorded the privileges of a hanger-on.
Since Paul Schrader comes from a Midwestern Calvinist background, his film was a tale of murder, corruption, tragedy and redemption. Jonathan Ames – best known these days as the creator of HBO's "Bored to Death" – was fortunate enough to be brought up by East Coast intellectuals, so his story is a reasonably sunny, if off-beat, character-driven comedy. Specifically, "The Extra Man" deals in sexual confusion, eccentric sexual politics, therapeutic humiliation, and the love of great literature, but not necessarily in that order. Also, there's friendship – that's important too.
Paul Dano stars as Princeton-alum Louis Ives, who flees to New York with vague aspirations of becoming an author after being caught playfully modeling a brassiere over his tweed jacket and losing his teaching job. Seeking cheap lodgings, he allows himself to share an apartment with the late-middle-aged Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a frequently abrasive and utterly obscure playwright who, very much like young Louis, seems to have stepped into the 21st century straight out of the 1920s. While Louis is struggling and out of step, the proudly out-of-date Henry is dead certain of his place in the universe. Impoverished but deeply vain – his hair constantly changes from gray to black and back again throughout the film – he is always sure of his own correctness.
That extends to political and social views that he says are to the right of the Pope, but are actually closer to those of an enlightened member of the Taliban. He opposes the education of women. "It dulls their senses and affects their performance in the boudoir." On the other hand, he's entirely nonviolent. It follows, then, that the comically reactionary Henry is in love with Russia, where dictatorship is still not politically incorrect and you can supposedly buy a bottle of champagne for $4.00.
And then there's the matter of what he does to supplement a teaching job which apparently leaves him unable to afford new socks. (In one scene, he covers his naked feet in shoe polish.) When Louis learns of Henry's unusual calling as an extra man, he's not creeped out but fascinated and even wants in on the action. Sharing a love of the Jazz age and good books, Henry and Louis are, in a way, made for each other.
There is a potential problem, however, in that Louis is a lot less prudish than Henry and he's also a bit driven. The young man's desires lead him to visit a blowsy prostitute (Patti D'Arbanville) who helps out with his cross-dressing fetish. He also attempts to flirt with a pretty, unavailable, and completely uninterested coworker (an intriguingly nervous Katie Holmes, more than a cut above her usual work) and it’s not clear whether he'd prefer to sleep with her or just look like her.
Caught between a fairly clear desire to have sex with women and the thought that he might also enjoy actually being one, Louis is not wracked with guilt. He is, however, worried about the possibility of losing his new friend as well as his place of residence – Henry has ejected an earlier roommate (Jason Butler Harner) for merely owning a bondage magazine. Clearly, the two things young Louis must never to do is damage Henry's prized collection of spherical holiday ornaments ("Christmas balls") or be caught in a compromising kinky situation in their shared apartment. Guess which two things happen towards the end of this movie.
Despite many charms, "The Extra Man" might thoroughly annoy many viewers and it occasionally got to me as well. The husband and wife directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who co-adapted the screenplay with Jonathan Ames, pulled off one the greatest movie coups of our young century back in '03 with their terrific documentary/tragicomedy vision of the work of the late Harvey Pekar with "American Splendor." Unfortunately, there is simply no comparison with 'The Extra Man," as this is an entirely straightforward, entirely traditional art-house comedy that is not afraid to be a little bit twee around the edges. Still, that's not the worst thing in the world and perhaps that's just the difference between Pekar and Ames.
With slightly candy-colored cinematography by Terry Stacey, this is a film that Charlestons towards the edge of preciousness and then Lindy Hops its way back from the brink, though possibly not always far enough. A British-accented narration – Berman and Pulcini clearly ordered the extra-plummy from actor Graeme Malcolm – is serviceable enough but not as funny as it ought to be. The presence of John C. Reilly, sporting enormous fright-wig hair and a huge beard, begins the film as its funniest joke, but one more gag involving his character's voice crosses the line into silliness. (I still laughed, however.) On the other hand, Marion Seldes is surprisingly moving as the main billionairess in Henry Harrison's life, and Celia Weston nails her role as a particularly demanding client.
In the lead roles, the theatrically trained and inherently theatrical Kevin Kline is the obvious guy for the role of Henry Harrison, and knows it, and there's just nothing else to say. He owns the part. The same pretty much applies to Paul Dano, who is the central casting young eccentric of our generation, and that's a good thing in my book. This may not be on a par with his controversial but brilliant work in "There Will Be Blood," but it would be very hard to match that pitch of hysteria.
"The Extra Man" may suffer from a small problem with coy cinematic underachievement, but there is an awful lot to be said for a literate and good natured movie featuring a uniformly outstanding cast that actually manages to be funny and sweet, but not overly sentimental. For that reason, I happily recommend "The Extra Man" to anyone who, after reading all this, still thinks they can take it.