The Extra Man

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Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **½

American eccentrics overflow the work of film-making duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, from what you might call the eccentric celebrity-dining pictured in their 1997 debut film Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's to their masterpiece -- one of the more original American films in recent memory -- American Splendor. Even their so-so, somewhat misfired adaptation of The Nanny Diaries was saved by the eccentricities of its lead character (and the fine performance by Laura Linney, an actress who finds the latent oddities in all her characters). Berman and Pulcini seem more than intrigued by and attracted to the oddballs among us; they actually champion them.

So it is with their latest venture, The Extra Man, set in New York City among very possibly the most eccentric group of people I can recall (outside of films set in a mental institution). Our hero(ine) Louis, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), is a young man attracted to but as yet untutored in the art of cross-dressing, who comes to the city from a school-teaching job in Princeton, planning to become a writer modeled somewhat on F. Scott Fitzgerald and two of his characters. The opening scene and credit sequence, beautifully done, introduces us to those two characters with a very effective and funny jolt.

Once in New York City, Louis becomes involved with one, Henry Harrison, played by Kevin Kline, a prime oddball who seems to live by his wits, acting as the "extra man" of the title by escorting wealthy and eccentric (don't those two words go together more often than not?) widows of Manhattan society out and about. Aside from the boss of the "green" publishing house where Louis lands a job, and one of his co-workers (played by Katie Holmes), just about everyone we meet in this strange little movie is utterly bizarre -- including Henry's downstairs neighbor, played by a bearded and bewigged John C. Reilly in near-nutcase form.

All this makes for some genuine laughs. For awhile. But eccentricity can be tricky: Show too much of it and a movie begins to feel unbalanced. When it's offered up in a manner like that of American Splendor -- so integral to the characters and situations on view -- it pulls us in and deepens our understanding. There we truly inhabit the world of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (with Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis simply brilliant in their roles). The Extra Man, for all its odd situations, strange characters, and ample humor, fails to do this. We're always on the outside looking in and seldom feeling for or understanding the people we're viewing.

Dano makes the best of the situation, partly because he is such an intuitive actor, particularly good at playing vulnerability. His is also the character we know the most about. Kline, on the other hand and for all his charm and verbal dexterity, is given a role in which he remains -- the filmmakers' intention, I would guess -- a mystery and thus little more than a collection of tics and oddities. He's fun, but he doesn't make us care about his character in the least. Which makes Louis' choice at film's end something of a stretch. While our hero's decision makes a statement about the wonders of eccentricity and what he really wants out of life, I'm not sure I buy it.

Among the supporting cast, Holmes is mildly interesting; her character seems to exist in order to convince Louis that he is better off alone and (yes) eccentric. One of the treats of the film is Marian Seldes, tarted up as you will seldom have seen her (so much so, in fact, that did not recognize her until reading the end credits). Also appearing to good use are the lately ubiquitous Celia Weston, as one of the hangers-on of the wealthy, and Patti D'Arbanville as an oddly low-key dominatrix who caters to the cross-dressing set.

I admit to looking forward with great anticipation to this movie, which may be adding to my disappointment -- perhaps unfair to the filmmakers. Still, as writer/directors, with screen-writing help from the man who wrote the novel upon which the film is based, Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death), Berman and Pulcini have managed to show us a very peculiar New York world, while failing to enter it at all fully. I did like the film enough, however, to wonder if I might get more from a reading of Ames' original novel.

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