Paul Dano, fittingly, is a Jonathan Ames character come to life in The Extra Man, based on the Ames novel of the same name. He’s nebbish, reserved, and scholarly, and accords himself as though he were living in the 1920s (in some ways, he’s similar to Jason Schwartzman’s character in “Bored to Death,” another Ames creation). Louis is a modern-day Gatsby, if Gatsby were broke, lived in a crappy New York City apartment, and had unresolved issues involving cross-dressing and gender identity.
In The Extra Man, Dano’s Louis Ives moves to New York City to “find himself,” after he’s sacked from a teaching position at a private boarding school when the headmistress discovers him trying on a bra. In the city, he stumbles reluctantly into a living arrangement with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a barely employed, destitute holdover from a different era. He’s something of an aristocratic beggar and as eccentric a character as you’re likely to see this year. He’s posh and snobbish, believes that the downfall of civilization was allowing men and women to attend the same schools, collects Christmas balls, and when he can’t afford to buy socks, he just shoe polishes his ankles. He’s also wildly amusing, a hilarious one-man comedy of manners, To maintain his social standing and continue living the occasional few hours as a 19th Century aristocrat, Harrison is an “extra man” — he escorts elderly women to high-society functions and acts appropriately brash and ill-mannered.
Much of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s (American Splendor) The Extra Man involves Louis and Harrison bouncing their idiosyncrasies off of one another, and there are enough of those to jingle-jangle the plot forward, aimless though it may be. When the momentum begins to flag, a third eccentric is brought into the mix: John C. Reilly’s downstairs neighbor, Gershon, who looks like Harry Potter’s Hagrid but speaks with a feminine falsetto. He’s also a chronic masturbater, as if to add to the film’s quirk. Katie Holmes is somewhat extraneously thrown into the film, as well, as a strident vegan/women’s activist co-worker of Louis’, who finds his oddities curious but thwarts his romantic advances. Her appearance is somewhat jarring and doesn’t do much for the plot except to iterate that, while Louis likes to wear women’s clothing, he’s still very much a heterosexual.
Despite what you might think of the plot description, The Extra Man isn’t your typical hipster whimsiquirkilicious indie flick. There’s no Cat Stevens or Iron and Wine on the soundtrack. It’s an adult comedy, intelligent and literary even at its most silly. Kevin Kline, who accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award after the screening, turns in his funniest performance since A Fish Called Wanda and completely owns the screen when he’s on it.
Unfortunately, when Kline isn’t deftly hamming it up, The Extra Man occasionally gets bogged down in the multitude of quirks. Part of that problem is Dano, a fine dramatic actor who doesn’t quite fit the role. The cross-dressing elements, too, are out of place and ill-suited to both Dano’s talents and his character. It doesn’t belong in a movie about two men who seem from another era living in modern Manhattan. Having Dano be a pot-smoker would have served the same function for the purposes of the plot and wouldn’t have bogged the film down in the occasional bout of ickiness.
Ickiness and over-quirk aside, however, The Extra Man is amusing and, at times, downright gleeful, thanks mostly to Kevin Kline and some late-inning antics from John C. Reilly. Unfortunately, it’s the extras in the film — Dano’s cross-dressing, the layers of eccentricities, and Katie Holmes — that prevent The Extra Man from fulfilling the promise of Ames’ novel.
(This review was originally published during the Boston International Film Festival. It is opening in limited release today.