Cinemalphabet: E is for The Extra Man (2010)
Years ago, when I read The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames (novelist and creator of HBO’s rapidly improving series “Bored to Death”), I often pictured either Michael Douglas or the film’s eventual star, Kevin Kline, in the role of Henry Harrison – the anachronistic, charmingly snotty misanthropic, ableist failed playwright about town. The lead character – Louis Ives, brought to life by Paul Dano – could have been played by any number of young, male upstart in possession of a flat affect and the ability to resemble a deer in the headlights while delivering lines. If the film was to be adapted for a mainstream audience, Douglas would have been the better choice. To be clear, either choice would have been acceptable to me; thankfully, Kline was cast, and film was not adapted with audiences unfamiliar with Ames’ aesthetic in mind.
The Extra Man is in skillful hands, thanks to the directing and writing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor). Their screenplay (also nod to Ames’ himself who is credited along side Springer Berman and Pulcini as one of the film’s screenwriters) and direction is absolutely flawless. What makes the film so delicious is how well it works for those who are well versed in the source material (like me) and those who are unfamiliar with it, but who are well versed in the works of its writer-director team. If you like quirky films such as American Splendor, The Squid and the Whale, Thumbsucker or to a lesser degree, the films of Wes Anderson, it’s a good bet you will also find The Extra Man an enjoyable film.
From the opening credits it appears the audience is to be taken on a typical and rather dull journey with a man lacking self awareness as he attempts to “find” himself. Thankfully, this is all interrupted when the protagonist Ives is fired from his job teaching at an all-girls college for getting caught trying on a colleague’s bra by the school’s headmaster. Ives then finds himself without a job, a crumbling sense of self and what he believes are compelling reasons to leave Princeton, New Jersey to try his fortunes in Manhattan.
Once in the city, Ives is relegated to a supporting character in his own life upon meeting and eventually becoming roommates with Kline’s bombastic Henry Harrison. Harrison does not believe in the education of women and also describes his views on sexual matters to be, “to the right of the Pope,”. But this is all bluster and pomp, consider Harrison is a man who colors his shock of white hair with a mascara wand and paints “socks” on his feet to both spare himself the pain of locating a clean pair while hoping the chemical compound will also kill the fleas and other nasties overrunning the filthy apartment.
As an aside, the novel’s description of Henry’s dwelling makes Joe’s Apartment sound like the Ritz Carlton. Fortunately, the filmmakers have opted to spare the audience such details in favor of giving the overall impression of refined “squalor” of the apartment, rather than its often disgusting actualities. Still, the dump is a part of the irony of both the film and Henry’s character. Henry clearly believes himself to be better than most, yet is dependent on wealthy, elderly women for handouts, drives a raggedy ass hooptie; attempting to leverage what he believes are his elegance and class in hopes of one of these bittys finally kicking the bucket and leaving him all her loot. In addition Henry might frame himself as wonderfully refined, but others see him as the cheap, opportunistic, ableist d-bag.
That said, like most great characters, Henry has a singular goal: to secure a room for the winter in the Palm Beach home of one of the wealthy women he escorts – Lois Huber, in a delicious turn by Lynn Cohen – which, of course is threatened by a rival played by Celia Weston. All of which is explained to Ives in painstaking detail within moments of meeting Henry. Not that Ives doesn’t have his own goals and constellation of characters floating about and causing him great distress.
Namely, Mary Powell (Katie Holmes), a co-worker who Ives pines for, but otherwise has been rendered dull and somewhat useless by script. That said, Holmes is excellent as the overly earnest animal rights activist. Ives also enjoys the company of a “recession spankologist” played by Patti Patti D’Arbanville, whose performance is nuanced and poignant, though somewhat underdeveloped. Nevertheless, it’s hardly competition for the cast of characters frequenting Henry’s life, some of which include: Ives’ predecessor Otto Bellman and Gershon (played by a virtually unrecognizable John C. Reilly). Both characters are hilarious in the book, though their screen approximations, while amusing, only pale by comparison. Particularly, Reilly whose Gershon is more of a sight gag (due to his appearance) rather than a real character. In fact, other than Henry, Ives and Lois, most of the other characters from the book aren’t well developed at all. But that is of little importance, given the film belongs to Kline, who kills all of his scenes.
The Extra Man, particularly Kline’s well tempered performance as the over the top Harrison should be on everyone’s lips come award season, but given the film’s rather unenthusiastic reception both at Sundance this past winter and again at the box office this July when it was released, it’s unlikely to make a splash unless there is a big rally by its fans and distributor. I had been eagerly awaiting the film, tracking its progress from pre-production to release and yet still I was unaware until it finally headed towards DVD that it was out and available for viewing. Not sure where the breakdown happened as far as promotion is concerned. It’s too bad though. Kevin Kline has his best role in decades and nobody’s around to take notice.