Edinburgh 2010 Review: THE EXTRA MAN

rating: 4

No one plays a satisfied fool like Kevin Kline. In Robert Altman€™s lovely final picture, A Prairie Home Companion, he played Guy Noir, a security guard whose clothing, speech and thought processes were straight out of a 1940s private eye movie, only the movie was set in contemporary times and no one had bothered to tell him he was a walking anachronism. In A Fish Called Wanda he thought the London Underground was a political movement. In The Extra Man he is, as in Altman€™s movie, a character who seems to find himself in the wrong era. It is set in the present day, but his ideas about (high) society, the pecking order and gender politics seem, to put it mildly, antiquated. He plays Henry Harrison, a fairly broke ex-playwright who courts older (try 92-years-old) aristocratic women and bluffs his way into social gatherings. He lives in a flat in Manhattan where he dances absurdly and collects Christmas baubles. He is looking for a lodger and his ad is answered by young Louis, played by Paul Dano. The story is told from Louis€™s point of view but both parts are equally memorable. Louis has a penchant for the 1920s and old-fashioned living; he also has a penchant for cross-dressing, about which more later. This set-up isn€™t all that original €“ young man goes in search of himself and finds older man who becomes a father/mentor figure €“ but The Extra Man is a well-made, well-written (it is based on a book by Jonathan Ames) piece that is elevated by its performances. When Louis sees Henry€™s car €“ a dilapidated Buick €“ Henry observes, €˜I drive around New York looking for €œit,€€™ then, after a pause: €˜I mean €œit€ in the Kerouac sense.€™ On his attitude to sex: €˜You will find I am to the right of the pope.€™ This guy could have been insufferable but the casting of Kline really makes the part work. Henry says that people are drawn to his disapproving nature, and in a sense we in the audience are too. He is not a million miles from Melvin Udall, the misanthrope played by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, inasmuch as the casting lets us like the character despite ourselves. Louis, a lonely and somewhat confused young man, finds him a bit much at first but quickly starts seeking his approval; he is unsure what to make of him, but his intelligence and old-fashioned nature draw them together. We know from the opening scene that Louis likes to cross-dress but hasn€™t explored this part of himself much. I€™m not sure how this thread of the film will play to most audiences, but I found it to be truthful and earnest. I also liked the fact that his character is not defined by this single aspect, which he clearly wants to keep secret from Henry. He is just a young guy who hasn€™t explored his sexual identity much and tends to come to the wrong conclusions because of external influence. I also liked the fact that the transgender women in the movie are not figures of fun or targets for humour, and the way that when Henry€™s sexuality is touched upon (more than once people wonder if he isn€™t gay) it€™s left at that, which feels right for the character. Dano is well-cast as Louis; you believe in his timid intelligence. His life is narrated in the movie by Kline, although without saying too much the nature of the narration is enjoyably ambiguous. Dano has, in a few well-chosen roles, proved himself an interesting, very watchable presence. The supporting cast includes John C. Reilly as an eccentric neighbour and Katie Holmes as a possible love/lust interest. The credit €˜And Katie Holmes€™ at the movie€™s opening made me flinch but she€™s perfectly acceptable, if not dazzling, in the role. This is an eccentric lot but what I think warmed me to them was the fact that the word €˜quirky€™ never entered my head. It is directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who together made the wonderful American Splendor in 2003. They celebrate the characters rather than the cookiness: a lesser director might have channelled Wes Anderson, which I think would have been wrong for the material. Neither do they seem like elitist snobs, possibly because they seem like antiques; artefacts of a different era to be treasured. What really makes the movie work is Kline. Unlike his character in A Fish Called Wanda, he is genuinely intelligent here, and either deludes himself about how absurd he has become or chooses to ignore it. His gift for physical comedy is evident throughout; he gets laughs from looks and gestures. This is a good, intelligent comedy with characters I liked. That shouldn€™t be a rare thing, but it is.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.