It’s hard to see what Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, co-directors of American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries, saw in taking on The Extra Man, the story of a socially awkward teacher named Louis Ives (played by the always understated Paul Dano) who leaves behind his sheltered prep-school gig for the wilds of Manhattan. Once there he lands a phone sales job at an environmental magazine and moves into the Upper East Side apartment of an eccentric dandy (played by the predictably cast Kevin Kline). Based on a novel by the script’s co-writer Jonathan Ames, the movie revolves around the conceit that Kline’s failed playwright/budding-mentor Henry Harrison is an “extra man,” a chaste male escort to high-society dames. Unfortunately, like the ridiculously pretentious Harrison, the film fancies itself much more interesting than it is. And screenwriter Ames seems to aspire to be that successful oddball he is most decidedly not: Charlie Kaufman.
The main difference between those two writers lies in the notion of sincerity. Whereas Kaufman conjures a vast array of bizarre characters with deep human hearts and flaws that render even the weirdest believable, Ames paints in broad superficial strokes. There’s Dano’s Ives, who imagines he’s in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and pines for co-worker Mary (the always underrated Katie Holmes), all while attempting to suppress his cross-dressing fetish. There’s Kline’s sex-phobic Harrison, who kicked out his last roommate—a Swiss hunchback into bondage—and has a best friend who he deems a chronic masturbator. John C. Reilly, overly hirsute and looking like a menacing homeless guy or former Hell’s Angel, embodies this masturbator in question, and stays mute for a great portion of the film only so that his sweet, high falsetto will later come as a shock to us. In other words, the film is a series of gimmicky setups designed to elicit feel-good laughs.
Indeed, Berman and Pulcini seem in a desperate losing battle trying to elevate their film above its shtick. They try sepia-toned images for Ives’s old-fashioned flashbacks, opening and closing camera irises to introduce and end scenes, even a Roosevelt-era score—which, sadly, only highlights the fact that The Extra Man is a lightweight, tediously long vaudeville sketch. A scene between Ives and an older, bottle-blonde dominatrix (hooker?) starts out as a cross-dressing session and ends with an unbelievable kiss. (Indeed, the whole transvestite storyline is woefully disingenuous, with Ives even showing up at a transsexual bar in his dorky suit like a transsexual chaser—rather than a transsexual wannabe—would.) And Kline making fun of his own perceived pretentious nature by playing pretentious characters is becoming pretentious in itself. With zero chemistry between the actors and no surprises, the film runs in quirky circles rather than organically unfolding in a forward direction. What’s left are stale sight gags like Harrison scrubbing himself with a wealthy widow’s little dog—his annoying fleas transferred but not gone.