Writer Jonathan Ames seems to be a media darling these days. Creator of the successful HBO television series Bored to Death, he's now making the leap to the big screen with this adaptation of his 1998 novel, The Extra Man. Two adjectives that immediately spring to mind, whether speaking of Ames's fiction, non-fiction, or his life, are quirky and comic. And those are definitely the two adjectives that describe this film, co-written and directed by husband and wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.
It's the search-for-identity story of Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young English teacher we see fired in the film's opening scene. Louis uses the setback to follow his heart to Manhattan, where he hopes to pursue a career as a writer. His first priority is to find a home, which leads him to answer the apartment-sharing ad of the endlessly eccentric Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). Soon, the introverted Louis gets sucked into Henry's wacky world, peopled with the likes of elderly billionairess Vivian Cudlip (Marian Seldes) and Klingon-like neighbor Gershon (John C. Reilly).
This is an odd story filled with quirky and sometimes off-putting characters. There's something anachronistic about Dano's Louis, exhibited outwardly in old-fashioned manners and vintagey three-piece suits and inwardly in his Gatsby-esque fantasy life. Classic fiction isn't the only thing Louis fantasizes about, though. In fact, he's tentatively exploring his sexuality and trying to come to terms with transvestite urges, all while pining for a pretty co-worker (Katie Holmes).
Henry, on the other hand, is larger than life, and Kevin Kline throws himself fully into the role--literally, as it happens, when the character dances. Henry isn't particularly nice. He doesn't much like women, and is adamantly against sex. He describes himself as, "somewhere right of the Pope." His apartment is cluttered and filthy. He's ethically-challenged and teaches Louis how to scam tickets to the opera and urinate in public. He is not the best role model. And, yet, that is exactly what he becomes, introducing Louis to the concept of "the extra man."
Henry's lifestyle is sustained by squiring wealthy elderly woman to their dinners and art openings and vacation homes. And it is Kline's innate charm, despite the character's flaws, that makes him believable in the role. It is also Kline's over-the-top performance that drives the film's humor. His line readings are priceless, and you simply can't help but laugh at his antics. In fact, a day after seeing the film, I dissolved into tears trying to describe him attempting to wipe his fleas onto a Yorkshire terrier. Who does that?
This isn't a mainstream film, and it won't appeal to every viewer. The humor is smart, edgy, strange, sophisticated, physical, and just weird. But I laughed long and loud. The performances (many by New York stage actors) were excellent, and Kevin Kline's alone is worth the price of admission. Not every joke lands, and parts of the film are uneven, but I never knew what would happen next. I think The Extra Man will find its audience among fans of Wes Anderson's quirky, charismatic films. It deserves to find an audience. Take a break from formulaic summer fare and give it a chance.