The Extra Man

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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Duty calls: Kevin Kline as washed-up, non-sexual escort Henry Harrison in The Extra Man


I gave up on The Extra Man about two thirds of the way through the movie.

I was a huge fan of Jonathan Ames’ 1998 novel, having followed his oft-bizarre columns back in the heyday of the NY Press. Ames’ is a world of sexual peccadilloes and peculiar behavior that passes without judgment. His writing has a droll reserve that hinges on key turns of phrase. (A character doesn’t go to the bathroom, he “performs his toilet.”) Understatement is key.

Alas, nobody explained that to directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who helmed Extra Man with all the quiet reserve and commitment to subtlety of Dinner For Schmucks. The husband-and-wife filmmaking duo scored a great deal of acclaim for adapting the late Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor a couple years back. As gimmicky and self-infatuated as Pekar’s comics were plain-spoken and miserable, the movie does not hold up well. (The less said about their follow-up The Nanny Diaries the better.)

Co-scripted by Ames himself, Extra Man hews close to the book in all events, details and circumstances, but the tone is off by at least half a mile. Paul Dano stars as Louis Ives, a loquacious young gentleman born 80 years too late. He fancies himself the hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and carries himself in a dapper and entirely anachronistic fashion. Dano is a problematic actor on his best days; he requires either strong directors to rein in his stilted affectations or Daniel Day-Lewis bludgeoning him to death with a bowling pin. This film has neither.

Young Louis Ives has a secret: He likes to dress in women’s clothing. This gets him expelled from his prep-school teaching position and cast adrift in New York City, where he becomes the unfortunate flatmate of Kevin Kline’s Henry Harrison.

A broke, pompous boor who yearns for high society, “H. Harrison,” as he calls himself, is an actor’s dream, all weird quirks and theatrical pronouncements. Henry escorts moneyed, elderly widows around town to the kind of filthy-rich functions that happen only in New York. But he’s so hard up he’s attracting fleas, painting socks on his feet with shoe polish and driving a beat-down Buick. Prone to odd monologues about his hatred of sex, Henry is such a stubbornly strange creation Kline hardly needed to crank the performance up to 11.

Kevin Kline’s lack of a career remains mystifying. A handsome leading man who could handle everything from Shakespeare to musicals, he won an Oscar for his astounding comic tour de force in A Fish Called Wanda then promptly marginalized himself: He turned down so many roles in his prime, his nickname in Hollywood was “Kevin Decline.” Popping up in these days in weird, unworthy vehicles ( Life As A House, anyone?) it’s hard not to think of Kline as a wasted resource.

Which is probably why he grabs the role of H. Harrison and throttles it within an inch of its life. My goodness, there’s a lot of acting going on here. Between Dano and Kline carrying on in capital letters as wacky roomies, I needed to go outside and get some air. Berman and Pulcini are similarly relentless, going so far as to add an omniscient narrator voiced in hoity-toity fashion by Graeme Malcolm.

The last straw for me came via John C. Reilly as Kline’s and Dano’s crazy neighbor. (Because we really needed more whimsy at this juncture.) Wearing a ludicrous red wig and Grizzly Adams beard, Reilly spends most of the movie lurking about in silence, finally letting loose with a “wild and crazy” falsetto speaking voice that is the polar opposite of funny.

I took the opportunity to step out, perform my toilet and grab another cup of coffee. It was a crowded film festival screening, and after steeling myself for the hambone theatrics to come, I finally headed back in.

In my way, blocking the entrance while standing and admiring his own grandiose performance, was Kevin Kline.

For once, I was at a loss for words.

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