Extra Man, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/23/10 05:53:55
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: In general, it's a bad sign when the main character of a movie isn't the first name you see in the credits. That's not a rule you can really rely on, since that sort of thing is often negotiated by agents and studio people, but it is worth noting here: This movie is about Paul Dano's character, but it's Kevin Kline's name we see first.Kline's Henry Harrison is the "extra man" of the title, a playwright who escorts elderly widows to social occasions. His new flatmate and protege is Louis Ives (Dano), a would-be writer come to Manhattan to "find himself" after being let go from his job teaching English Literature at a Princeton boarding school (there was an incident involving ladies' underwear). Ives soon finds a new job at an environmental journal, where he's soon smitten with co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes), but the combination of her boyfriend and his awkwardness keeps her out of reach.
Characters like Louis Ives are often hard to connect to, and this one is not exception. The things that make him wierd are too big to be quirks, but aren't big enough to make him a full, interesting character. The dream sequence that opens the film, a sort of Great Gatsby pastiche, is probably meant to give us some idea of Ives's self-image and the life he would like to lead, but it comes across as hollow, not even an appealing or well-constructed fantasy. Louis himself comes across as little more that a construct for the movie - a half-baked fantasy with a little cross-dressing and attachment to an old car thrown in.
That makes it a little hard to know what to make of Paul Dano's performance. On the one hand, Louis should be uncomfortable to watch; he's weird, and if one met him in real life, one would make excuses to end the conversation quickly. The trouble is, Dano seldom makes Louis seem like more than the sum total of his eccentricities; it's hard to sense a beating heart underneath the surface. He's not helped by a screenplay that makes Louis act like an alien new to human interaction one minute and the sane counterpart to Henry the next.
The result is that even the characters painted with a much broader brush seem a lot more believable. Take John C. Reilly as Gershon, the downstairs neighbor. The guy is ridiculous, outfitted with a crazy beard and haircut, and when he finally opens his mouth to speak... Well, it's bizarre. But there's a look of genuine hurt in his eyes when he's not speaking to Henry early on, and a feeling of connection between them later on. Even the often maligned Katie Holmes finds a definite personality for Mary. And then there's Kevin Kline.
Kline was presented with a lifetime achievement award after the screening, and he's the best reason to see the movie, bulldozing Dano and anyone else on screen with his outsize portrayal of Henry Harrison, the would-be (or one-time) aristocrat. Henry is an eccentric, offensive, prudish, parasitic snob, but one with Kevin Kline's perfect comic timing. He's ridiculous, but so brazen that he never becomes an object of mockery and only briefly one of pity. He gets a laugh - and often a big one - with just about every line.
Now, if the movie were primarily about Henry, he wouldn't be nearly so funny, and directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (who also adapted the screenplay with original novelist Jonathan Ames) deserve credit for not allowing the funny supporting character to completely take the movie over. It's a near thing - things are dead until he shows up - and something about Ives, whether performance, story, or backstory, really should have been built up in order to handle the competition.Still, it's a good thing Kline's Harrison is there. "The Extra Man" could have been just a pretentious, forgettable story of a twenty-something milquetoast; instead, it's one with plenty of laugh out loud moments.
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