Whatever the flaws of The Extra Man, it sure is good to see Kevin Kline on screen again. Kline had a nice run from the mid-‘80s into the ‘90s, applying classical training to buoyant farces like A Fish Called Wanda or Soapdish, but in recent years he’s been less visible than peers Steve Martin and Bill Murray. Instead of releasing banjo albums, hosting Saturday Night Live, or leading Wes Anderson movies, Kline has played mostly avuncular and/or professorial types in movies like Orange County (2002) and Definitely, Maybe (2008).
Kline’s gift for erudition, real or imagined, serves him well in The Extra Man, as he plays Henry Harrison, a Manhattan resident who’s about 20% prince, 80% pauper. Henry lives in a flea-ridden Upper East Side apartment, drives a collapsing Buick, and sometimes paints on socks rather than buying a new pair, but he does get by with a fair amount of escort work. Not whoring, mind you—he maintains a broad distaste for sexual acts, declaring himself “retired”—but as a learned, leeching escort for old-money ladies to various social functions.
It’s a bit of a ridiculous part, then, but Kline always rises to ridiculousness. He plays Henry with flair, delivering dismissive, faux-intellectual opinions (women should not be allowed to attend college!) and questionable anecdotes (such as his manuscript being stolen by a “Swiss hunchback”) with casual authority. He radiates such blasé pomposity that Henry’s eccentricities feel real and earned. It helps as well that writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini know a bit about eccentric loners, having adapted American Splendor to the screen.
It does not help, however, that we see Henry through the eyes of a second eccentric loner. His new roommate Louis (Paul Dano) is a sensitive aspiring writer with a taste for F. Scott Fitzgerald and cross-dressing. For reasons loosely explained by his Gatsby fixation, Louis is eager to serve as a protégé of sorts to Henry, who teaches him the fine arts of flattering elderly women, sneaking into the opera, and appearing sophisticated rather than near-impoverished.
Louis breaks from the lifestyle by also holding down an actual job (Henry alludes to a teaching career that we never glimpse and have trouble believing), His toiling at a popular environmental (print!) magazine should be treated as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to be. His coworker Mary (Katie Holmes) is similarly ambiguous. It’s hard to say whether Holmes’ high-voiced affection is satirical, or whether this flighty New York vegan is so honest and pure as she appears.
Next to Mary and Louis’ thinness, their awkward imitations of quirkiness, the outward weirdness of Henry, as well as his neighbor Gershon (John C. Reilly), is more substantive, and certainly more entertaining. Berman and Pulcini are obviously warmhearted filmmakers, but this is their second film in a row where sympathy approaches blandness.
Their last excursion to quirky, moneyed Manhattan, The Nanny Diaries, might have chalked up its wan cuteness to uninspired source material or studio interference. The Extra Man comes from a tonier pedigree (a Jonathan Ames novel) and a less restrictive indie studio, yet the cuteness remains: in some scenes, Kline’s body language is the only source of wit. Still, The Extra Man may yet have its uses if it can serve as a calling card for Kline, a reminder that this dexterous actor is still around, ready to work, and aging gracefully without vanity.