Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's latest unsuccessful attempt to live up to the promise of 2003's American Splendor is filled with odd behavior and curious quirks. What it's not filled with are recognizable humans. The always welcome Kevin Kline steals the show as Henry, an eccentric, dirt poor Manhattanite faking his way into high society by escorting wealthy, elderly women to their various upper-crust functions. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) plays Louis, the sexually confused wannabe author who becomes his protégé. The original Jonathan Ames novel from 1998 is a rich, funny and unusual work. The movie opts for the funny and unusual, leaving us with characters ill-equipped to rise above their shtick or engage our sympathy. High-toned comedies are pretty rare nowadays, so The Extra Man should net some specialty coin before shuffling off to DVD.
Not since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has a movie housed so many people deserving of psychoanalysis or admission to the loony bin; if only they developed into more than a collection of ticklish mannerisms. These characters fail to build into anything emotionally satisfying. It's admirable that Louis' experimentation with cross-dressing isn't played for easy laughs; instead, though, it's not played for much of anything. It does, however, launch the story. After getting caught at the office wearing a woman's brassiere, Louis is canned from his prep school teaching job, which sends him to New York City. In need of a place to live, he finds the tiny, messy apartment of Henry Harrison, an eccentric's eccentric with the stentorian voice of an arrogant 1920's dandy and similarly outmoded opinions on gender and art. After laying down the rules ("No fornication!" barks the sexless, proudly misogynistic Henry) Louis moves in. Henry and Louis are folks you tend to see in limited releases. They're fun to hang out with, but all that whimsy can get old. If they stopped being self-absorbed long enough to see a movie together, they'd probably see The Extra Man. Whereas Hank communicates with dramatic flair and is quick with an Algonquin-style quip, Louis is the opposite. He's adrift in life. He's socially awkward and friendless. He was born in the wrong era and latches on to Henry because he was, too. Henry's William Powell mustache and combed-back hair remind him of an F. Scott Fitzgerald creation. Eventually, Louis finds a job answering phones at an environmental magazine where pretty co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes, thankfully quirk-free) spurns his tentative, soft-spoken advances. Louis clearly needs to be taught some life lessons, like young men in the movies often do. As the man fated for the job, Henry is prepared to teach Louis the important things in life, like how to urinate in public without getting caught and how to sneak into the opera for free.
In adapting his own novel, co-writer Ames emphasizes outré characterizations with unfortunate dashes of physical humor and sight gags. Weirdoes come and go without establishing any strong thematic connection to Louis. John C. Reilly shows up in a gigantic, homeless-man beard and talks in a falsetto. We love you, John, but you're not helping. Later, Hank's former roommate (a hunchback, of course) arrives to get his mail out of the freezer (don't ask) and features prominently in the movie's finale (wholly unsatisfying). Possibly realizing nothing is coming to life, Berman and Pulcini throw in iris shots, sepia-treated dreams and alt rock music. Worst of all, they've put their actors in a position to fail by, ironically, casting them to type. Paul Giamatti was cranky and nasty as the late Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, but we connected with him. We loved him for his flaws. We sympathized with his pain. Both lead performances in The Extra Man are theatrical. Their charm and irascibility sit on your lap and ask you to like them. Henry can be a hoot until he reaches the tipping point and becomes artificial. Louis is just a sad sack drifting around an alien world. The ending is purposely soft, a nudge forward for both men and that's it. Clearly Henry and Louis have identity issues and the difficulties inherent in searching for and finding one's identity is about all we can take from this musty comedy. It's a very workable theme, obviously. It's just buried beneath the Christmas balls, vibrators and, possibly, John C. Reilly's enormous beard.
Cast: Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Screenwriters: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini and Jonathan Ames
Producers: Anthony Bregman and Stephanie Davis
Rating: R for some sexual content
Running time: 108 min
Release date: July 30 NY/LA