The Extra Man follows Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a lonely dreamer who fancies himself the hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. When a deeply embarrassing incident forces him to leave his job at an exclusive Princeton prep school, Louis heads to New York City to make a fresh start. He quickly finds a 9 to 5 job at an environmental magazine, where he encounters an entrancing, green-obsessed co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes).

But, what really sparks Louis’ imagination is his new home life. He rents a room in the ramshackle apartment of Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a penniless, wildly eccentric and brilliant playwright. When Henry’s not dancing alone to obscure music or singing operettas, he’s performing – with great panache -- the duties of an 'extra man,' a social escort for the wealthy widows of Manhattan high society. The two men develop a volatile mentorship, which leads to a series of urban adventures.

Tale of two oddballs falls strangely flat.

What is Kevin Kline’s signature role? The hilariously dense Otto in A Fish Called Wanda? The everyman rendered Presidential in Dave? The Ice Storm’s despairing patriarch? The answer is that there’s no answer: Kline has been so gifted in now forgotten arts of the movies – such as light comedy and the Shakespearian adaptation – that we’ve come to register his class in minor fare but never ask why he’s done so little that is breathtaking or elementally unforgiving. He’s spent too long making decent movies better merely by being in them.

Kline, who has never forsaken his beliefs for some lucrative run and gun gamesmanship, has more in common with the great trio of English stage actors – Laurence Olivier, John Geilgud and Ralph Richardson – whose film careers, essentially profitable adjuncts, overtook their theatrical body of work. He was 35-years-old when he arrived on the screen in 1982, with Sophie’s Choice – can you imagine that happening now? – and for the last 30 years a defining part has defied him.

Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man is too minor a work to truly elevate Kline, but the role of Henry Harrison, an ageing and eccentric fixture on the fringe of moneyed Manhattan society, does play to his strengths: farce rendered with dramatic strength, uncompromising commitment to the absurd, and a switching of moods that would be cumbersome if it wasn’t so lightly done. As it is, Kline dominates the feature, which is something of a problem since it’s not strictly the story of his character.

A young man adrift in the fiction of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a prep school teacher whose predilection for women’s underwear – he has cross-dressing fantasies – sees him fired and sent on his way to New York City (there’s a tidy James gag when he visits the contemporary Washington Square), where his quest for housing delivers him to the ramshackle apartment and spare camp bed of Henry.

A charming boor, the one time playwright turned social walker for elderly wealthy widows, soon overwhelms the timid younger man. 'I’m against the education of women," he will declare without much prompting. 'It dulls the sense and weakens their performance in the boudoir." Henry is a canny mix of theatrical flair and reactionary impulses. 'I’m to the right of the Pope on most of these issues," he warns Louis.

A husband and wife team, Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini, have never quite recovered from making a wonderful feature debut with 2003’s American Splendor. Their follow-up was a woefully jumbled 2007 adaptation of The Nanny Diaries with Scarlett Johansson, so it’s not surprising that they’ve returned to an eccentric protagonist in the order of the late Harvey Pekar. But Henry is essentially a vastly entertaining cipher, and while it’s admirable that’s he’s not burdened with an obvious back story, he’s left with little to do but pontificate and eventually soften in his feelings for Louis.

The filmmakers have a feel for the crumpled corners of Manhattan, with exemplary set decoration of Henry’s abode by Carrie Stewart, but Louis appears lost in all this, with Dano believing that good manners and secret desires should be best played with a cloying shyness. As an odd couple the two never really connect, and the resolution of Louis’ cross-dressing habit is played for laughs when it’s previously been a source of emotional distress.

The directors pepper the narrative with odd flights of fancy and antiquarian technique, as they did in their previous pictures, but it falls strangely flat and doesn’t illuminate the story. They fare better with Katie Holmes, delivering a perfectly decent performance as an impossibly dedicated leftist co-worker Louis watches, but John C. Reilly is disastrously indulged as Henry’s friend Gershon Gruen, who has a full beard and Woody Woodpecker’s voice.

Reilly is playing the part purely for laughs, not realising that Kline is far funnier because humour is the furthest thing from his mind. That’s a reward of technique and experience, both of which Kline has in spades, but it doesn’t make for a triumph. After all, what’s the point of stealing a show that’s not complete?


1 hour 45 min
In Cinemas 16 September 2010,
Thu, 02/03/2011 - 11