The Extra Man is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the brains behind both American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries. Like American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman’s and co-director/husband Robert Pulcini’s excellent probe into the life and times of cult comic book author Harvey Pekar, The Extra Man centers on an eccentric-to-the-point-of-confounding main character, Kevin Kline’s Henry Harrison. Like The Nanny Diaries, the charming-yet-repelling Harrison lures an awkward young wannabe (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano as Louis Ives) into a strenuous, class-based New York existence.
After an ill-timed and furtive attempt at cross-dressing, Ives is fired from his English-teacher job at a fancy New England prep school. Ives, who dreams of a Fitzgeraldian existence, is only too happy to jump at the chance to relocate to New York City. In an amusing twist to the Gatsby story, Ives becomes Nick Carraway to Harrison’s Gatsby, except, instead of wealthy and suave, Harrison is freeloading and pompous. His main game is to escort elderly Upper East Side widows, hoping for an angle into their summer home or opera box. Ives becomes Harrison’s roommate in a flea-ridden one bedroom and gradually receives training as “an extra man” for the wealthy widows.
That’s that, plot-wise. Fortunately, the kooky characters carry the film. Ives, as noted, ogles bras and panties (for himself), yet still hits on his co-worker Mary Powell, a self-righteous dingbat Ives falls for nonetheless. Sadly, Katie Holmes is the weakest link in a knock-out ensemble cast, with hardly a redeeming character feature and the automaton acting skills we’ve come to expect from Scientologists. Back at the apartment, Kline masticates the scenery as a devoutly Catholic, yet unrepentant, mooch with the affectations of a pre-war gentleman. As Harrison’s shy and sensitive neighbor, John C. Reilly once again begs to be Facebook defriended by a jealous Will Ferrell for turning in one of the most odd-ball hilarious performances of the year.
The whole package shares what both American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries did, an affectionate look at some typically unappealing characters, finding humor in their personality quirks and understanding in their off-putting behavior. Not that I’d invite any of them to my summer home, but I wouldn’t mind picking up a grifting tip or two.