The Extra Man

A fuzzy fest of quirk overload

It seems like it should have been a recipe for success: A script taken from and co-written by novelist Jonathan Ames (who created the HBO series Bored to Death). Direction by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the filmmakers behind the wonderfully innovative American Splendor. A cast that features the gentle intensity of Paul Dano and the hammy, histrionic comedy of Kevin Kline. And yet … The Extra Man is an unfocused exercise in quirk overload. There are eccentric, larger-than-life characters, outre subplots, and lots of wacky situations, but this almost comedy of manners (or is it almost a coming-of-age story?) has only one thing going for it — the foppish, tempestuous Kline.

Louis Ives (Dano) is a wannabe transvestite and F. Scott Fitzgerald devotee who’s dismissed from his university teaching job after being discovered in a bra. Moving to New York City to become a writer, he rents a room from the flamboyant and imperious Henry Harrison (Kline), a failed playwright and aging gigolo. What follows is a tale of the insane leading the bland, as Henry teaches Louis how to become an "extra man" and Louis struggles to reconcile his sexual desires with his wish to be seen as a gentleman. Escorting wealthy elderly women, pining for a navel-gazing co-worker (Katie Holmes in serious need of a meal), and colliding into a rogues’ gallery of misfits, Louis slowly learns to shed his inhibitions and embrace the possibilities of life.

I know. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s not great either. The episodic script is all verve and no wit, a relentless tribute to nonconformity that starts to exhaust its goofiness after the first hour. There are close-to-clever ideas and interesting asides, but nothing resonates and the comedy never tickles.

Surprisingly, Springer Berman and Pulcini’s direction is tentative and unsure, as they struggle to wrap their arms around a story that keeps wandering away from them. They seem similarly confounded by their characters, unable to locate the soul beneath layers of zaniness. Without understanding the humanity behind the strangeness, each becomes an echo chamber of tics and shtick. More tragically, Louis is far too precious and self-doubting a protagonist to win us over. Dano’s sad clown approach is sweet but unmoving, keeping us at arm’s length.

Harrison, on the other hand, explodes with the bizarre self-confidence and petty spitefulness of a community theater diva. Threadbare debonair and ludicrously narcissistic, Kline’s loony blowhard elicits few laughs but never fails to amuse. From his tutorial on discreetly urinating in the street to his morning interpretive dance, it’s a memorably indulgent performance. If there were an Oscar for Most Acting, it’d belong to Kline.

The Extra Man is likably offbeat and low-key, but for all the oddball jokes and peculiar situations it throws at the screen, only Kline sticks.

Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

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