The Extra Man

Paul Dano is Louis, a nervous young man with an interest in 1920s literature and a gnawing curiosity about wearing women's underwear. After a humiliating incident at the New Jersey prep school where he teaches, he relocates to New York City, where he finds a new roommate in Kevin Kline's Henry Harrison, an eccentric dandy who dabbles in being a gigolo – or, as he calls it, a "rosen knight" or an "extra man" – accompanying wealthy dowagers to social functions.

I'll tell you why I was compelled to see this mostly indifferently-received comedy: first, living the life of an underemployed indie filmmaker myself, I was drawn to the idea of a story about an "elegant bum" and hoped to identify with these characters' creative approaches to living the good life on pennies a day. Second, I quite liked the underrated comedy The Great Buck Howard, and although the two films do not apparently share any personnel, they are quite alike in spirit, pairing an up-and-coming young actor (in the case of Buck Howard, Colin Hanks) with a veteran character actor given free reign to ham it up (Buck Howard had John Malkovich). There are other similarities, too: one of Buck Howard's running jokes was its titular magician's ambiguous sexuality. And so too in The Extra Man, Henry Harrison's sexual preferences are vague, even as he himself boasts of his asexuality.

Alas, my hopes of getting some tips on surviving with style during tough economic times were dashed: The Extra Man is about character, not environment. However, I was nearly as satisfied with the movie as I was with Buck Howard. Based on Jonathan Ames's 1998 novel, The Extra Man often has that "quirky novel" feel, where many of the characters and situations are just a wee bit too offbeat. (John C. Reilly, usually a welcome presence, annoys as a Hagrid-like neighbor with a distractingly high voice.) And whereas one could search for deeper themes in the story about sexuality, masculinity, loneliness, or identity, the film comes up empty on these fronts. Mostly it is a love letter to the Big Apple's charming oddballs, who are fast becoming priced out of post-Giuliani Manhattan. And there is something endearing about its characters' fondness for bygone days, when gentlemen wore tuxedos out to the opera and feasted on caviar at the Russian Tea Room. I wish The Extra Man showed more of a sense of loss for those genteel times, but Kline is enjoyable, Dano adroitly straddles the line between sweet and creepy, and the rest of the cast is peppered with fine character actors. It's a nice, light movie, not particularly memorable, but an agreeable way to pass an hour and a half.