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Our review of The Extra Man (Blu-Ray), published January 20th, 2011, is also available.
They're not gigolos, they're gentlemen.
Louis: "You have a strange power over people, Henry."
Facts of the Case
Our protagonist is a young teacher named Louis Ives (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood). Due to budget problems at the school, Louis is released from his position and forced to seek out a new job and a more affordable place to live. Before long, Louis lands a position with an eco-friendly magazine and begins sharing an apartment with English professor Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline, De-Lovely).
To put it mildly, Henry is a very…interesting…individual. He's a brash, eloquent, opinionated, larger-than-life figure who spews unapologetic sexism and endlessly peculiar advice at every opportunity. Louis is initially hesitant about sharing an apartment with Henry, but eventually warms up to the idea and becomes rather fascinated with his new friend.
In his spare time, Henry works as an "extra man" (someone who provides a lady with companionship at social events) for an elderly billionaire. Louis finds this line of work very appealing and attempts to convince Henry to help him land a similar job. Henry reluctantly agrees, offering Louis a series of lessons on how to live an extraordinarily elegant life on a poor man's budget.
The directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman made a big splash with their debut feature American Splendor, the witty and inventive Harvey Pekar biopic/adaptation/documentary/thingum. Their follow-up effort was The Nanny Diaries, a well-intentioned but underwhelming comedy. Now we have The Extra Man, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames. Is it a return to form or another disappointment for Pulcini and Berman? Actually, both.
The Extra Man is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and exasperating films I've seen recently, a clash of styles that threatens to become brilliant or disastrous at any given moment. It veers through numerous tonal shifts over the course of its running time and pushes characters together who don't even seem to belong in the same movie (much less the same scene). It can be frustrating at times, but the strong scenes are so genuinely enjoyable that one wants to forgive cinematic crimes which are generally unforgivable.
Though I haven't read the novel upon which the film is based, I suspect some of the tonal inconsistencies come from Jonathan Ames (who also co-wrote the screenplay). Ames' HBO series Bored to Death has a similarly inconsistent tone and sense of humor, veering from dry wit to lowbrow slapstick on a regular basis and demonstrating narrative schizophrenia at times. By the second season, viewers were simply able to accept these quirks as part of the show's world, but it took quite a while for most to come to terms with what it was attempting to accomplish. The Extra Man suffers from almost the exact same problem, with the notable difference that it doesn't have the luxury of letting viewers warm up to it over the course of multiple episodes. By the time the credits roll, we're still trying to figure out how to fit a square peg in a round hole.
The tonal inconsistencies are best exemplified in the performances of the two leads. Kevin Kline is an absolute riot as Henry Harrison, displaying the sort of unhinged comic genius he demonstrated in A Fish Called Wanda and A Prairie Home Companion. Like Otto and Guy Noir, Henry is an absurd creation (a sex-hating, Fitzgerald-loving, worldly, womanizing, militantly right-wing social butterfly) but a hilarious one. Time after time, Kline reaches giddy comic heights (particularly when sharing the screen with the equally goofy John C. Reilly, who sports an amusingly huge beard and mimics the voice of Mr. Moose from Captain Kangaroo). Kline's performance should be the centerpiece of the year's silliest and most entertaining comedy.
Ah, but then we have the performance of Paul Dano as Louis Ives. Dano has never been more passive than he is in this role; a mush-mouthed milquetoast who stammers and squeaks his way through the movie. On paper, this character serves as excellent counterpoint to Kline's bluster. Dano takes the character very seriously and infuses him with a genuine sense of torment and self-loathing, which is what he's supposed to do. However, the filmmakers take Louis too seriously, and allow Dano's despair to lead the movie into gloomy, melancholy passages which are difficult to overcome. These scenes are good in and of themselves, but they kill the comedy (likewise, the scenes of broad comedy that follow have a tendency to undermine the weight of the moody Dano scenes). The film continues to wrestle with itself in this manner to the bitter end.
The DVD transfer is respectable enough, offering solid detail and depth. There are hallucinatory sequences that look very soft, but that's intentional. Audio is also satisfying, but this is a dialogue-driven track which lacks any sequences that will make the viewer sit up and take notice. The primary extras are two commentary tracks: one with Ames and Kline, the other with Pulcini, Berman, production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb and moderator Lisa Collins. "Behind the Score Footage" (8 minutes) offers a look at Klaus Badelt's lovely music, while "HDNet: A Look at The Extra Man" (4 minutes) is a forgettable fluff piece. You also get a deleted scene and some quick footage of voiceover artists making duck noises.
The Extra Man is a film defined by its lack of definition, all the way down to its summarizing line: "So there we are—where are we?" Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: I'm glad I saw the film, if only because it contains Kevin Kline's best performance in years. For that element alone, it's worth a look.
It's not perfect, but it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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