The Extra Man is a hard film to like, much like Kevin Kline’s eponymous title character. Well okay, his character Henry Harrison is actually easy to like, at least for an audience; but to the other characters in the film, he’s hard to know. Does that statement sound a little confusing and somewhat schizophrenic? Well then, perhaps it’s a fair representation of the film itself.
I’m not sure what I expected going into The Extra Man; definitely to be amused by an adaptation of the Jonathan Ames’ novel, who is also the creator of HBO’s Bored to Death. I’d certainly heard good things about Kline’s performance, and Kline at his manic best is always a thing of inspired brilliance. But I was finally somewhat let down on both counts. Kline certainly delivers everything the part asks of him and more, as do all of the actors, save Katie Holmes who seems as miscast and lost as ever. But at the end of the day, there’s simply a hard-to-reconcile, odd tonal imbalance at play that ultimately proves unsettling. Watching The Extra Man is like feeling your stomach trying to digest something that was described as “mystery meat” in a grade school cafeteria.
Perhaps the material works better in its original form as a novel. Whether the problem lies in the adaptation or the novel itself, the writing never cuts as sharply as the best moments of Bored to Death, and the character madness never reaches the same heights. We’re left with something that is never madcap, but yet strangely keeps its characters at arm’s length in seeming comic tradition.
The period of the film itself is somewhat disconcerting and off-putting; we know it takes place in present day, but the story is presented through the eyes of Paul Dano’s Lous Ives, who begins the film as a teacher of English literature and admits at one point that he sometimes walks around imagining his life as narrated by a character with a 1920’s voice and sensibility. This perfectly typifies the character of Ives, who wants to be a proper gentleman with the moral integrity of an earlier time period, and seems a little lost trying to make his way in contemporary society. When Holmes’ character Mary spouts the occasional bit of pop psychology or contemporary-speak, Ives is a tongue-tied fish-out-of-time-out-of-water. In fact, Ives’ turn-of-the-century romanticism and utilitarianism colors his view of Manhattan in such a way that the end result is like looking at photographs of several different time periods of New York overlaid on teach other, causing a subtle, underlying feeling of anachronism-fueled nausea.
This unsettling, and certainly unintended, duality plays across almost every level of the production. The characters are broad and eccentric, yet the film stops short of ever becoming farce or even true comedy. Instead, they’re deeply humanized, and there’s something sad and pathetic about most of them, as well as often oddly noble. The Extra Man is at its best during its final act when it has cut through a lot of the character oddness and simply lets their truths shine through. But for most of the running time, there remains an underlying comic sensibility that prevents the humanization from ever getting too deep, or the characters from developing into fully actualized human beings. Again, this balancing act holds the audience in a state of uncomfortable near-vertigo.
I believe there was probably an ambition behind the aim of the filmmakers that was simply never successfully realized. A more specific example of this is Ives’ exploration into cross-dressing. It’s the inverse to this idea he has of himself as a persona from classic literature. Ever since he was a little boy, he’s held some fascination with wearing women’s undergarments. The film plays this for laughs to a degree, but ultimately wants to genuinely explore it. It puts him in some broad setups that seem geared towards comedy, but the comedy never comes. Yet the scenarios border on the seedy and uncomfortable. On its own, this would be fine; in fact, take it a little farther and you’d have the latest Paul Schrader film. But it’s the degree to which the scenes go, and then don’t go, that’s ultimately the problem. It’s the equivalent of waking up the morning after a party and drinking the last few swallows from someone else’s leftover warm beer glass.
The directors assembled a largely comicly-gifted cast, led by Kline, who are talented and were able to find the humor in the material. Perhaps a larger understanding of Ames’ voice from his other work also led them down the path to concentrate on the funny as much as they have. But I have to believe that a more successful version of the film, while allowing the humor to come through, would have done so while really focusing on Louis Ives as a gentleman character out of time, on his nobility and sincerity, and his journey to chart a path through contemporary society, including the aspects of his personality that he himself has a hard time accepting and reconciling. The humor and character eccentricities would have then functioned as a counterpoint providing humanization and acceptance to Ives’ struggle. Instead, this current imbalance of tone functions like the self-sabotage of the ouroboros.
At best I can call The Extra Man an interesting mistake. It’s filled with committed performances from talented actors. John C. Reilly persuasively attempts to sell his odd vocal choice, perhaps the oddest since Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married, while the audience sits listening in shocked and amused disbelief. It both completely works and completely doesn’t at the same time. And that, as I’ve been describing about element after element of the film, best sums up everything about it. The Extra Man is like waking up hung over on a beach and watching the sun come up with a homeless man who tells you a touching story, a dirty joke, and throws up on himself, all at the same time. It both completely works and completely doesn’t, and really just makes you want to go home and take a shower. Which is decidedly not the intention of a good extra man.