We're the odd ones out
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, August 20, 2010
Right around the time Paul Dano pours his lanky frame into a loose-fitting cocktail dress and bends over the knee of a middle-age dominatrix to receive a spanking, it becomes obvious that "The Extra Man" -- like Dano in drag -- will be both eye-catching and strange.
Swifter comedic timing and a clearer narrative thread might have helped center this peculiar adaptation of Jonathan Ames's 1998 novel of the same name. Then again, maybe not. Helmed by husband-and-wife co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who drift further from the promise of their Oscar-nominated "American Splendor" with each new film, "The Extra Man" never fully pulls in the viewer.
The titular man is Henry Harrison, played with relish by Kevin Kline, though it's Dano's character, Louis, who acts as our portal into Pulcini and Berman's world. A sexually confused young English professor, Louis is banished from Princeton to Manhattan after colleagues catch him trying on women's undergarments in the teacher's lounge. (If only he'd known that fellow faculty members frowned on such behavior.)
Louis's hasty search for a proper apartment leads him to Henry's door, and the two eccentrics form a fast, if unlikely, friendship. Louis and Henry, we learn, are products of a bygone era. The former envisions his life as an unwritten F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Henry, meanwhile, is a failed playwright who survives by offering his services as an extra man to the city's lonely aristocrats. Wealthy, older women describe Henry as an escort. The rest of us would call him a gigolo. These awkward social contracts with needy seniors aren't uncomfortable for Henry. They are a necessary means to a financial end. (His cluttered, Upper East Side apartment and winter vacations in Palm Beach, Fla., aren't going to pay for themselves, you know.)
In time, Henry is teaching Louis the ropes. Lessons imparted from the persnickety mentor to his wide-eyed protege range from how to sneak into the opera to urinating in the gutter without being seen by passersby. Louis, however, would rather spend his days getting to know Mary (Katie Holmes), the perky graphic designer at his new magazine job.
And then there's that unshakable urge of his to dress in women's clothing and release his inner debutante.
Such oddities keep "The Extra Man" from becoming too predictable. Unfortunately, they also prevent the story from making much sense. The usually reliable John C. Reilly, for example, comes and goes as Gershon, a subway mechanic with the facial hair of an 1800s gold miner. But while he accompanies Henry and Louis on a long trip to the Hamptons, the journey -- and Reilly -- add nothing extra to "Man."
It's also worth noting that Pulcini and Berman's comedy exists in a rose-colored New York that's typically reserved for Woody Allen films. The artificiality of the situation is amplified by Kline and Dano's polished, odd-couple banter, which could be packaged for the Broadway stage and sold as a lost Neil Simon production with minor edits. Kline still knows how to roll his tongue over well-scripted lines such as, "Primarily, I'm a playwright. Sadly, my great opus was stolen by a Swiss hunchback, but that's all too tragic now."
Dano isn't as lucky. Louis's emotional confusions and insurmountable social obstacles neuter the actor's ability to perform. A subdued Dano never figures out how to play a character who has no idea how to behave. Louis's journey toward self-awareness also ends up being so insular that we watch from a safe distance instead of tagging along for the ride. It makes for detached entertainment. During a revelatory exchange, Henry sums up his young friend as being extremely well read but completely out of touch with reality. The same can be said about this film.
Contains sexual content.