Tuesday, June 22, 2010

EIFF Premiere: "The Extra Man" (2010)

Kevin Kline's role as the exuberantly eccentric failed playwright, Henry Harrison, is perhaps his funniest and best performance in years. I would consider it something worthy of an award nomination, but we'll see if that unfolds over time after further release of the film in which he stars, "The Extra Man," based upon the 1999 novel by Jonathan Ames and written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor," "The Nanny Diaries").

Living in a cluttered, ramshackle apartment in New York City, Henry is a man who considers himself an aristocrat. Meanwhile, he sneaks into operas and has a special technique of how to pee in public without anyone noticing. With wispy grey hair that is most often slicked back when he's wearing his suit and jacket, he calls himself a gentleman of the highest class, an extra man. He is an escort for wealthy older women while never engaging in them sexually. Yet that's because he believes all the best women come from Russia. He holds strange ideals, controversial ones, and places them out on the table like they're meant to be there all along. And when not dressed for an outing, Henry's grey locks fly free, and he wears his high-waisted blue sweatpants and does dance exercises that look like a madman having convulsions. He's clean but slimy, scholarly but out-of-touch and, plainly put, an assembly of bizarre contradictions. He also has a strange fascination with Christmas balls.

The story isn't so much about Henry, however, than it is about a painfully shy and self-conscious man named Louis Ives (Paul Dano). After an incident at Princeton where he taught, Louis moves to New York to figure out a new life. He ends up living with Henry in his apartment, and from their very first conversation Louis discovers how strange Henry's lifestyle is and gets oddly transfixed by him. During their time together, Henry plans to make Louis his protegé, his extra man in training.

Louis lands himself a job at an environmental magazine where he meets arguably the only normal person featured in the movie, Mary (Katie Holmes). Louis has a crush on her, and while it's an innocent one, Mary can't look past his awkward and odd demeanor. At a lunch with Mary, Louis explains to her how he imagines himself in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in the 1920s with someone narrating his life.

The movie is clever in that some instances feel like they could be set in that era and even more clever, then, that we hear a narrator describing Louis' inner thoughts. It's a comedy of manners, one that toys around with generational expectations of cordial behavior and also turns the act of being a manly gentleman and other sexual politics on their heads. Louis has urges about dressing up in women's lingerie, and satisfies these urges by hiring a woman (Patti D'Arbanville) to teach him how to properly cross-dress. He also visits transsexual clubs, but they don't prevail in pleasing him.

Louis soon gets the chance to take Henry's place as the extra man for an old crow of a billionaire, Vivian (Marian Seldes), and after the evening he gets called a perfect gentleman. Yet Louis remains torn. Paul Dano gives a familiar yet strong performance as the young and confused Louis who is mechanical in his words and actions only because he doesn't know how to function outside of 1920s proper lifestyle. He is socially awkward, and the way he observes Henry becomes a twisted tale of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and it's fitting that this literature is referenced at the film's start.

The rest of the cast is great, as well, including Celia Weston ("Junebug") and a role from John C. Reilly as Henry's downstairs neighbor like nothing we've ever seen from him before. With a giant bush of hair and beard, he talks with a high-strained falsetto but sings deeply as he gives Henry and Louis something which to dance during a touching beach scene. "The Extra Man" is full of characters who are purposely and exaggeratedly out of the ordinary, but they're used to reach a surprising depth of poignancy. As the narrator states, "So there we are. Where are we?" It's not meant to mean anything, but maybe that's the richly effervescent point all along.

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