Magnolia Pictures // 2010 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // January 20th, 2011
A sexless new comedy.
In 2003, an indie movie called American Splendor came along and rocked my feeble little world. An adaptation of the autobiographical, award winning underground comic of the same name; the film cleverly explored the existential angst, loneliness, and hardships of blue collar intellectual Harvey Pekar.
While the film faithfully adapted multiple story threads from decades of the comic book, it also layered a documentary commentary from the real Harvey Pekar, his friends and family. In terms of comic book adaptations, one would be hard pressed to find a comic book film that made a more inventive big screen transition. The success, in part, is to be attributed to directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Bergman, who garnered an Academy Award nomination for their efforts.
Following the critical success of American Splendor, Pulcini and Bergman tackled The Nanny Diaries, a Scarlett Johansen (Ghost World) headlined adaptation of the popular book of the same name. While the film wasn't an utter failure, it didn't exactly turn heads the same way their freshmen debut managed. Now, they're back with The Extra Man, an adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Ames (Bored To Death). Though it isn't another American Splendor (what is?), the team have turned out a thoroughly hilarious independent comedy.
Following an embarrassing cross-dressing incident, English teacher Louis Ives (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood) is fired from his job at a private school. In the fallout, he decides to pursue his dream of being a successful writer/editor, moving into a small apartment with neurotic, failed playwright Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline, In & Out). After a dicey introductory phase, the pair strike up a mutual admiration for one another. Harrison takes Ives under his wings to shape him into an "Extra Man," a sexless, high-class escort who provides company to aging billionaire heiresses in exchange for the perks of upper class indulgence. Things go well enough until Louis simultaneously falls in love with a hippie co-worker (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins) and succumbs to his cross-dressing curiosities. In order to continue his double lifestyle, he must keep these interests separate from the sexist, old-fashioned (um, "woman hating") Henry. Of course, this is easier said than done...
Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: The Extra Man never reaches the brilliant cinematic levels of American Splendor. By the same token, it's a damn solid comedy that attempts to carefully balances style and character. Bergman and Pulcini work off an adaptation co-authored by Ames himself, letting the sharply written screenplay and impressive cast do most of the heavy lifting.
Where a director like Wes Anderson (who directed the tonally similar The Royal Tenenbaums) is eager to put his personal stamp on every square inch of the frame, Pulcini and Bergman restrain themselves, serving the story first and foremost. Yes, they allow themselves to go cinematically buck wild at times, but only in smaller moments. These flourishes include a sardonic, stuffily British omniscient narrator as well as string of silent film inspired flashback sequences that hilariously reflect Louis Ives' view of the past.
Aside from these sequences, the film's greatest asset is Kevin Kline. His take on Henry is effortless, plumbing the desperation of a sycophantic, high-society parasite haunted by his past failures. He hates women, loves classical literature, paints socks on his ankles, and struggles to control a recent outbreak of fleas. Kline brings the right balance of sternness and absurdness to the role and has a lot of fun while doing it. Harrison is the kind of hilariously written character any seasoned comedic actor would be able to sink his teeth into, but Kline fully realizes the character as uniquely his own.
Paul Dano is equally strong as Louis, playing confused and reluctant but with a quiet dignity to accentuate the character's awkward sexual interests. Yes, he is the straight man to Kline, but he's also a very sympathetic main character, an obsequious (Harrison's word) sap who struggles to please those around him before pleasing himself. Watching Dano twist and juggle these character traits is funny and tragic all at once.
The rest of the supporting cast offers an equally solid foundation. As the object of Louis' affection, Katie Holmes reminds us of the strength of her comedic chops, imbedding the character with believability despite the fact that she's written as little more than a caricature of hipster chicks. Special mention must be made of John C. Reilly (Step Brothers), who steals every scene as a shaggy looking, sex addicted mechanic whose friendship with Harrison is on the outs. Speaking in high-falsetto tones while leveling others with a menacing gaze, the character is yet another notch on Reilly's comedic resume.
Magnolia's disc is a solid effort. The widescreen 1080p transfer is adequate -- not spectacularly detailed, but boasting enough of a solid, sharp picture to call it a genuine step up from a DVD. Colors are especially impressive. Exterior shots of Manhattan are vivid and deep, while Henry's apartment is layered with extra drabness through finely muted colors and dim shadows, making little touches like the flat's centerpiece of multi-colored Christmas balls (an important visual symbol in The Extra Man) stand out.
The sound mix is appropriate for a talky film. The Blu-ray boasts well-defined dialogue channels and good ambience that appropriately downplays the typical "home theater" experience in favor of more focus on the strengths of the film itself. The overall specs might seem milquetoast to your average Blu-ray collector, but the track does the job.
Magnolia gives only a fair amount of extras with the release. The main draw here is two commentary tracks. The first -- with Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, Production Designer Judy Becker and moderator Lisa Collins -- is a laid-back, albeit convoluted, track. I'm not a big fan of commentary moderators in general -- their inclusion is usually a sign that the filmmakers themselves really aren't fully secure in their commenting skills. While this isn't exactly the case, the track has a few dead spots and meanders a bit, but contains plenty of behind-the-scenes info and anecdotes to keep it above average, despite a somewhat muddled sound.
Kevin Kline and Jonathan Ames headline the second commentary, a chatty, amusing track that delves into the real-life origins of The Extra Man, the film's productions, and indulges Kline's own eccentric sense of humor. Audio wise, it's a much clearer track than the first, making for a fun conversational track.
The rest of the extras are thoroughly underwhelming in comparison. A deleted scene with Holmes and Dano proves amusing (but insubstantial) enough of a palette cleanser to prepare us for three underwhelming featurettes, The first chronicles the voice-over recording of a cartoon created for the film. It lasts for about 35 useless seconds before we're on to the Behind The Score Footage, a five minute talking head documentary of the composers discussing their approach to crafting the film's music. The piece is utterly shallow, film school quality and a major disappointment. Finally, we're treated to an okay puff piece in "HD-Net: A Look At The Extra Man which promotes the film in less than five minutes (and is also the only high-def extra on the set).
Yes, the comedy is consistently laugh-out-loud, perfectly performed, and solidly directed. So why the rebuttal witness? Well, for one thing, the script is pretentious. Literary references abound, often for a punch line, but sometimes just to remind us we're watching a well-read movie about well-read characters written by three well-read screenwriters. The effect is kind of like having a really one-sided conversation with a literature professor especially enamored with his or herself. The filmmakers should know that it is better to see references and allusion in action than to simply have characters prattling on about them in over-precious dialogue.
When the filmmakers are pro-active with showing, rather than telling, patterns of character inconsistency emerge. Yes, Dano's character is obsessed with the 1920s, and this trait creates visually effective "outsider" symbolism, but we never really fully understand why he's so enamored with the 1920s. His cross-dressing obsession is explored in full, fleshy detail, but his fixation on the Roaring Twenties feels thoroughly undeveloped in comparison.
As a result of this underdevelopment, most of the narrative elements rooted in this obsession come undone at the seams. The narration feels overdone and unnecessary. The seams show in Ives' dreams and flashbacks when we realize the character never establishes a preference for films of the era. Finally, an eclectic soundtrack of rock renders the whole motif an afterthought. The touches are aesthetically pleasing, but shallow and fleeting, making The Extra Man just as out of touch with its true colors as the characters that populate it.
Yes, it's pretentious and inconsistent, but in a day and age when Todd Phillips, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow are the kings of contemporary cinematic comedy; The Extra Man is a very funny and unique alternative. It deserves the attention of anyone interested in off-kilter, albeit alliterative, humor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene