Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were the filmmaking couple behind "American Splendor," the wonderful 2003 film that was as charming as it was brutally honest.
It's a movie that many have, no doubt, recently bumped up on their Netflix queues to re-watch, following the sad death of its hero, the comic book writer Harvey Pekar.
In "The Extra Man," Berman and Pulcini are again attempting to adapt a very particular literary sensibility: the Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames. Whereas Pekar detailed his regular schmo life, Ames (whose writing is also the basis of the HBO series "Bored to Death") is a kind of opposite — much more prone to exaggeration and self-conscious quirkiness.
The New York of "The Extra Man" is populated by eccentrics — a gigolo! a Swiss hunchback! — whose eccentricities are designed to be found very eccentric. The cloying quirk stifles "The Extra Man," which is a shame mostly because it does Kevin Kline such a disservice.
Our protagonist is Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a sensitive, excessively polite English teacher who fancies himself a 1920s gentleman out of "The Great Gatsby" — so much so that he imagines a narrator in his head, who we occasionally hear announcing Louis' thoughts.
Fired from teaching after what his narrator calls "the brassiere incident," Louis moves to New York and soon takes up a job at a magazine. There, the very environmentally mindful Mary (Katie Holmes) immediately catches his attention.
But Louis' indoctrination to New York doesn't come from his work, but his apartment. Responding to an ad that reads "Gentleman seeks same to share apartment," he moves in with Henry Harrison (Kline), a faded aristocrat whose cluttered, shabby apartment and broken-down Buick don't — at least in his mind — dull his sophistication a bit.
Henry is a character to the tilt. He dances at 7 a.m. in aqua blue sweat pants, knows how to sneak into the opera, deems Henry James "unreadable," applauds the lovemaking of Hassidic women ("They really get it"), says he's "to the right of the Pope" on most sexual issues, is obsessed with Russia and has the habit of finishing the day by pronouncing "So there we are. Where are we?"
He is also an "extra man," a gigolo, who keeps the company of wealthy older women.
If Louis is our Nick Carraway, Henry is our Gatsby, and "The Extra Man" is an ode to him. Kline's performance as Henry — regal in its classical stage pronunciations — is clearly the best thing in the film. But the character still fails to resonate; Henry isn't much more than a bag of peculiarities.
Louis is on a path to self-discovery, most notably exploring his urge toward cross-dressing. Dano plays him much as he did Eli Sunday in "There Will Be Blood": deferential, full of blinks and nodding, quizzical, sloped eyebrows and a halting manner of speech.
Henry leads him through his New York — one of faked high society (in one scene, Henry uses shoe polish to paint on socks) and of neighborhood weirdoes (John C. Reilly plays a mysterious, heavily bearded neighbor). Gradually, Henry takes to the city and the life.
To a certain extent, the New York of such oddballs no longer exists, or at least not in Manhattan. The city got safer and more expensive, and a threadbare, unemployed, unpublished playwright like Henry isn't likely to be easily found in the more gentrified city.
But Ames' cartoon fetishizing of New York's varied personalities aren't authentic, anyway. Perhaps he knows this. Henry tells Louis, "You may write my biography, but you'll ever capture my soul."
Pulcini and Berman, working from a screenplay they fashioned in collaboration with Ames, fall short of anything like soulfulness. "The Extra Man" is witty, but it even spoils that attribute by being so pleased with its own smarts. Ames, naturally, makes a Hitchcock-style cameo.
The most charming moment in the film is one of its most simple. The camera, looking from Louis' perspective, peers downward at his chopsticks, as rice falls away, eluding his unpracticed grasp. Its the most honest shot in the film about the naif in New York.