This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Shari Springer Bergaman’s and Robert Pulcini’s film adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel, “The Extra Man”, is a light-hearted effort in drawing the viewer out of their comfort zone. Seriously. Virtually nothing sensible is featured in this film.
However, this lack of sensibility is portrayed in such a way that is strange, but not offensive. “The Extra Man” is the type of film that makes one raise their eyebrows, but not without inciting the occasional burst of laughter. In fact, if one is open-minded enough, it is the sweet story of the friendship of two awkward characters who connect over their fixation of times past and things unorthodox to conventional society, and enrich each others’ lives by doing so.
“The Extra Man” opens showing the expanse of a large estate, where the presumed owner is in his backyard, cutting his own hedges out of frustration. His grumbles reveal nervousness that has transformed into surrender. The owner, a young man, has prepared an elaborate meal for a female guest he is courting, and she has not yet arrived. Convinced his efforts are all in vain, the man has taken to an impromptu gardening session. His butler, however, summons his focus toward the sound of a car horn. The approaching vehicle is the young man’s lady companion, Daisy. He enthusiastically heads to the front of his house to help her out of the car, proclaiming his happiness at her acceptance to his invitation. His lady companion finally reveals her face — for it to be the young man himself, in women’s clothing.
Louis Ives (played by Paul Dano) wakes up abruptly, after dreaming about courting a female version of himself. An English teacher by profession, he is a timid soul who harbours a fixation for the 1920’s. Aptly, he had fallen asleep with a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” on his chest. When leaving the campus, Louis defends the narrator choice behind Fitzgerald’s most notable work with one of his female students. He accidentally bumps into her, and she drops what she is carrying. When she bends down to retrieve the fallen item, she is seen to be wearing a vibrant piece of lower undergarment, which catches Louis by presumed surprise. He excuses himself by saying he has things to attend to at the teacher’s lounge. Soon, Louis finds himself alone with a bag containing a brassiere. The surprised expression that betrays him earlier reveals its true nature, and he proceeds to try it on. The head of the school catches him, and what follows is a humiliating dismissal from his teaching position. Before leaving indefinitely, Louis expresses his long-held desire to write for a living, preferably in the New York state. The statement is humoured with contempt barely veiled with tact.
For the entire summer, Louis adheres to a routine purely fit to the needs and ways of a distinguished gentleman. The imposed order is to keep him from further indulging in his desire to cross-dress. He realises that even the slightest moment of weakness commands too much attention from the public eye. Though ordinarily a soft-spoken man who exercises gentle manners, the extent of his conscientious repression takes a toll on his disposition. It is in autumn where he finds the change he is looking for.
Louis moves to Manhattan, and shares a room with an elderly playwright, Henry Harrison (played by Kevin Kline). However, in spite of the sharp character exuded from the various artefacts displayed in Henry’s abode and the very apparent aristocratic air about the man, Louis’ new room-mate is not without a few neuroses. Henry has a phobia of sex, exercises early in the morning to obscure music, views Christmas balls as a gift he would gladly accept among little else, and in allegiance to an archaic view of Catholicism, prefers women to be uneducated. He is also angry over someone stealing one of his plays, and keeps his accusations fixed on his former room-mate.
Shortly after moving in, Louis gets a job at an environmental publication. However, instead of scoring a writing position, he works in the marketing department, selling advertising space. Shortly after accepting the job, he is taken by the presence of his vegan co-worker, Mary (played by Katie Holmes) — and the strap of the blue brassiere slyly peeking out from her blouse. Between one dedicated to staying away from all forms of meat and one who is less choosy about his food, it would be an unrequited love in more ways than one.
Louis’ life outside of his work is anything but dull, however. In an effort to get to know the man who he is living with, Louis learns more about Henry’s associates. Henry’s former room-mate turns out to be a Swiss hunchback, who Louis meets while Henry is on vacation in Florida. The other is the downstairs neighbour named Gershon (played by John C. Reilly), a cycling addict with unruly hair and a high-pitched voice. Henry also teaches Louis to enjoy an opera for free, and gradually imparts wisdom from the aristocratic era, particularly about the being an “extra man”. Henry is an extra man: he accompanies widows — preferably of the wealthy ilk — to social functions. It is a job description Louis initially interprets as that of a gigolo. But when Louis is taken under Henry’s wing to learn about the ways of an extra man, Louis forms profound friendships with the women he accompanies. It is a stark contrast from the monstrous image they harbour of Henry. That very character flaw is made apparent when Louis feels increasingly annoyed by Henry’s flagrant asking of favours. Henry and Louis butt heads on more than one occasion. But every conflict is an esoteric transformation for each, resulting in an unusual, but nothing less of an authentic friendship.
“The Extra Man” is a film with almost tactile characters. Each carry such a substantial past, they might as well have searchable dental records and birth certificates. Based on characters alone, there are numerous golden moments in its 109-minute run.
The performances of the two central characters, Louis Ives and Henry Harrison, are worth remembering. Kevin Kline brilliantly embodies the maladjusted former playwright. Henry Harrison is a role so layered that I can only imagine it being taken by actors with extensive theatre experience. Had it been offered to someone else, I can also see it being played by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp. Harrison’s conservatism and offensive mannerisms is an element I enjoyed, because of its irony and gleefully tongue-in-cheek assassination of modern-day bigotry. Conversely, indie actor Paul Dano delivers an equally strong performance as the sensitive teacher-turned-writer. His disarming eyes, youthful face, and tentative movements are almost enough for the viewer to forgive him for his brief appearance in black negligee that he steals from Mary, make-up, and a long brown wig.
Try to unimagine that, folks, because I can’t.
John C. Reilly’s take on Gershon is a honourable mention and pleasant deviation from his curriculum vitae of coarser characters. Most of his humour lies in his use of a falsetto voice, and every appearance of Gershon is accompanied with the half expectation that Reilly’s real voice and trademark deadpans will return. Also, Katie Holmes’ performance as stiff-lipped Mary is commendable, it does not strike me as one of the film’s strong moments.
“The Extra Man”, though not conventionally funny, manages to coax the occasional chuckle. Each of the characters indulge in their own quirks — fears and insecurities, included — until the comfort of it all is ripped from underneath them. The end of the film moves each character towards a significant change, and their lives can only be further made vibrant upon accepting the fact their lives will now involve the weight of each others’ acquaintance.