Tuesday, May 3, 2011

FI: The Extra Man

The Extra Man
US, 2010
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

The Extra Man, based on a book by Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, is a take on a "fish-out-of-water tale" in which there are several fish, each of whom is out-of-water in his own distinct ways. Paul Dano plays Louis Ives, a young teacher who dreams of being a writer—and of wearing women's undergarments. When he loses his job over an embarrassing bra-wearing incident, he moves to New York and takes up with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline at his hammy best), an impoverished gentleman-of-leisure who lives to serve as an "extra man" at functions for elderly heiresses in the hopes of getting nominal bequests upon their deaths. Both seem like people living in a fictional, literary version of the past in order to avoid the unpleasant realities of the present. Harrison's code of honor and spendthrift ways clash with Louis's slightly more modern sensibilities, yet still somehow draw Louis into his strange, aristocratic world.

There's a boatload of quirk here, and, depending on your mood, you may find that it's too much to take, especially if the humor doesn't fit your sensibilities. I found myself mostly won over, though I knew all the while that the film had a number of flaws. Outside of the central duo, the characters are so broadly sketched as to verge on caricature, and certain facets of the plot are more believable than others. Much of what occurs seems driven by whim rather than any strict narrative need, and there are a few odd digressions and dead-ends that take up more time than they should if their sole purpose is, as it seems, to add slight color to the characters.

But the whole thing is played and filmed with an air of lightly magical realism—much like Bored to Death—that makes it easy to forgive its trespasses. It doesn't live in a world as mannered as Whit Stillman's, or one with as well-developed buried sadness as Hal Ashby's, or even one where the characters' self-constructed families feel as genuine as in Wes Anderson's work, but it feels like a sillier, more lightweight cousin to all of them. You'll have to trust your own judgment, here. The Extra Man is currently streaming on Netflix, so it's a low-risk proposition if you should choose to give it a try for yourself.

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