Mary (Katie Holmes) and Louis (Paul Dano) in The Extra Man.
By Don Simpson
When we first meet Louis Ives (Paul Dano), he is a socially awkward and astutely formal English teacher whose two obsessions -- classic literature and cross-dressing -- are playfully expressed in the opening dream sequence -- which references The Great Gatsby. It is not long before Louis is fired from his teaching job, an event which he accepts as a cue to move to New York City and begin his life anew. Upon answering an ad for cheap housing, Louis meets Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an older eccentric gentleman who's offering an extra room to whoever can meet his very high standards. A college literature teacher and playwright, Henry, like Louis, is a throwback to the 1920s who speaks in the British-tinged tones of an old aristocrat. Henry may exemplify the virtues of wit, intelligence and joie de vivre but his views about sex and women are, as he admits, "to the right of the Pope." Henry goes as far as stating that the American education system started its decline when females were admitted to colleges. Literature, too, has suffered its downfall once male writers began cohabiting with women. In Henry’s opinion, sexual repression is the only way to create great literature.
Despite his affinity for cross-dressing, Louis seems almost asexual (or maybe just an unformed sexual blob); he develops a strange relationship with his co-worker at a boutique environmental magazine, Mary (Katie Holmes), and he joins Henry on sojourns as an “extra man” -- a male escort of sorts –-- for much older, and quite wealthy, women. The real question is whether or not Louis will be able to hide his innate desire for cross-dressing from Henry, as that would clearly mean banishment from the apartment and his newly found aristocratic life.
From the opening scenes, the laterst film from writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s (American Splendor) wears “quirky independent film” quite proudly and prominently on its sleeves. And just when you think that The Extra Man has pushed the quirkiness envelope to its limits, a strange yet alluring downstairs neighbor named Gershon (John C. Reilly) enters the narrative. But even with the third eccentric personality thrown in the mix, the core of The Extra Man remains the interactions between the elder pseudo-aristocrat and his social progeny. Sure, Henry and Louis have major philosophical differences, but Henry learns to like Louis nonetheless just as Louis realizes that he has a lot to learn from his unique host despite Henry’s tendency for spouting socially close-minded remarks.
Kline has a real knack for playing offbeat characters and Henry is no exception. Few other American actors could pull off Henry’s unique mannerisms and enunciation. No matter how offensive and far-fetched Henry’s statements Kline’s delivery makes every single word sound equally convincing and beautiful. Henry, like Louis, is a man lost in time who has been transported almost literally from the 1920s. At times he seems disoriented and disheveled –- possibly from not knowing which decade he resides in –- while other times he lucidly reacts against 21st century modernity.
In contrast to Kline’s scene-stealing pomposity, Dano really underplays Louis’ eccentricities to an odd yet effective result. Dano’s subtle performance allows for the audience to accept Louis for the reality of who he is and establish a sympathetic bond –- a result that does not come easily with a narrative as offbeat and hyper-real as The Extra Man.
In other words, Pulcini and Berman’s adaptation of the Jonathan Ames' titular novel exudes sophistication, smarts, charm and let’s not forget the most important ingredient…quirkiness!