I gave The Extra Man a try last night because I loved American Splendor, a portrait of another eccentric writer co-directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. I guess I should have paid more attention to the source material. American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar looked through his own and other people’s eccentricities, acknowledging them in passing, but focusing on deeper and more interesting things. Jonathan Ames, the co-screenwriter of The Extra Man and author of the book it’s based on, seems mostly interested in the thrill of transgression, defying taboos and examining eccentricity for its own sake.
The extra man of the title is Henry Harrison, a self-styled aristocrat who ekes out his subsistence existence partly by cadging off rich old women, who want him at the dinner table to fill in the places left by their deceased mates and to provide “joie de vivre,” as he puts it. Henry has been hiding from the world for decades, it seems, ever since his promising youth as a playwright faded into anonymous middle age, and he’s developed an arsenal of bigoted pronouncements and other annoying traits that are pretty successful at keeping people, including me, at bay. It doesn’t help that he’s played by Kevin Kline, who has developed his own array of annoying traits over the years. On screen, Kline exudes a preening sense of bottomless self-regard that makes his characters feel a little hollow and narcissistic. That works wonderfully in comedies where his character’s unjustified self-regard is part of the joke, like in Soapdish and A Fish Called Wanda. But I think we’re supposed to empathize with histrionic head case Henry Harrison, and I just couldn’t do it.
When Henry rents his extra room to the painfully awkward young Louis (Paul Dano), who desperately wants a friend—well, you can guess the rest. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of business that doesn’t amount to much involving Henry’s former roommate, who has a hunchback and is always referred to as “the hunchback,” and his bizarre downstairs neighbor, Gershon (John C. Reilly in a rare misfire as a cross between a Wookiee and Oscar the Grouch). We see Louis experiment with cross-dressing and struggle with a hopeless crush on a co-worker, the slavishly trendy Mary (Katie Holmes). And in the most convincing and entertaining parts of the film, we meet two of the women Henry squires around town. Marian Seldes is wonderful as Vivian, a girlish 92-year-old whose thin, osteoporotic frame is swathed in satin and finished off in layers of makeup. Henry and Louis argue about her at one point, Louis saying she’s “sweet” and Henry insisting that she’s “a monster.” Seldes makes you believe them both.
Dano is very good too, a sock puppet of a man who can barely figure out how to stand upright, let alone how to operate in the world. He emanates a kindness and a dated decency that make you want him to be happy, making it all the harder to see him marooned in a sea of unlikable and cartoonish characters. There are some laughs in The Extra Man, but after a while, I felt too glum to snicker: Watching this backstabbing bunch exploit, betray, and reject one another felt painful and pointless. Just because someone’s eccentric, that doesn’t mean they’re entertaining or interesting.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.