[16 February 2011]
There are two criticisms I’ve seen most often leveled at The Extra Man, the largely tepidly received film adapted last year from a semiautobiographical novel by Jonathan Ames: that it is overly “precious” and quirky, and that sexuality is left implausibly out of the story’s equation. I believe that both of these criticisms completely miss the mark of what this quietly excellent movie is all about.
The film, co-written and directed by American Splendor‘s husband-and-wife team, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, revolves around Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young writer who has moved to New York to “find himself” and, because of his Fitzgerald-fueled fantasies of becoming a proper gentleman, winds up becoming the roommate and protégé of Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). Henry is a dirt-poor older fellow who lives in an overcrowded and mismatched apartment, but nevertheless affects the air of a member of the Upper East Side elite, through his main occupation: accompanying elderly widows to social events to help maintain the “boy-girl” ratio expected at such functions. He’s not a gigolo, since he does not sleep with these women and no cash seems to change hands; he’s simply in it for the prestige, for the opportunity to maintain an illusion of grandeur in his failed playwright’s threadbare life.
Young Louis, naturally, is intrigued, and is soon juggling a growing involvement with Henry’s world along with a crush on his co-worker at an environmental magazine, and one other thing: his explorations into a sexuality he hasn’t quite figured out, which leads him into dalliances with madams, transfolk, and a cross-dressing coach. Understandably, these three worlds don’t mesh well together for our hapless hero.
If just reading the above paragraph has exhausted you, you’re not alone. Each character in this film could easily be mistaken for nothing more than a constellation of tics, studies in contradiction as possible shorthand for character complexity. Aside from Louis’s attempt to reconcile his cross-dressing urge with his gentlemanly aspirations, and Henry’s aristocratic attitude in the face of near-abject poverty, we also meet Mary Powell (Katie Holmes, physically right for the role but somewhat annoyingly displaying acting chops that mostly consist of dramatic head-shaking), a vegan animal-rights activist who turns out to be on the shallow and closed-minded side.
Then there’s Gershon Gruen (John C. Reilly), a bearded homeless-looking neighbor who turns out to have an affected falsetto voice, a dream of sailing to the Mediterranean and an encyclopedic knowledge of an array of subjects. Two tertiary characters, Swiss hunchback ex-roommate Otto Bellman (Jason Butler Harner) and Meredith Lagerfeld (Celia Weston), who Henry introduces as an obese mooch, both display a level of self-awareness and insight for which Henry’s tightly circumscribed vision of their characters would never seem to allow.
Henry, most of all, is inarguably an eccentric (he collects “Christmas balls”; he stores Otto Bellman’s mail in the freezer; he dances wildly to classical music in the mornings to “move whatever” he thinks is “rotting”) – but aren’t these things only gratuitously quirky if they are pointedly whimsical inventions? This is, after all, a story based on an autobiographical novel, and Jonathan Ames makes it clear in his commentary track that Henry Harrison is a faithful recreation of very real person, one whose story Ames felt needed to be told as a “great American character”. If this collection of tics is all from real life, does that still count as overly fanciful or twee? I think that rather makes the character quite absorbing, an interesting study in a specific kind of true weirdo that New York is perhaps uniquely capable of producing.
Ames also reveals that John C. Reilly’s high-pitched vocal delivery was an invention of Reilly’s own, a variation on a very different kind of unusual voice that his character’s real-life inspiration used. The voice of Gershon was one of the very few elements of the film that did strike me as somewhat glaringly false, taking me most out of the world of the narrative, and the fact that this single element was one not ripped directly from the headlines of reality fits in well with my case for the believability of everything else.
In any event, though these characters are indisputably riddled with quirks and contradictions, it would be a mistake not to look a little deeper to see what the heart of The Extra Man‘s story is really getting at. There’s more at play than just a museum of oddities, a completely trivial and forgettable giggle parade. For one thing, it’s a coming-of-age tale, as Louis Ives struggles to define his identity among competing impulses and figure out what his goals really are. This is, in part, where the accusations of implausible sexlessness come into play: the problem is that Louis hasn’t yet figured out what he wants out of sex or gender. It seems clear to me that he’s just a lonely guy, one who has so given up on becoming close to a real-life woman in his demographic range that he’s resorted in experiments in cross-dressing to see if he can fill that need for feminine company by creating a woman out of himself. The fact that each of his encounters with this “underworld” (as the T. Rex song in the credits would term it) fails rather miserably is simply evidence that gender-bending wasn’t what he was really looking for in the first place.
Louis’s problems with relationships play into his association with Henry as well, but neither the fact that their relationship doesn’t turn out to be sexual nor that Henry sticks fairly staunchly to his “to the right of the Pope” stance on matters of fornication, even in his upper-crust world of escorts and ladies, bother me on the plausibility scale. Henry’s an older gentleman (at least in his 60s, and the ladies he’s escorting are in their 90s) and he’s presumably not the type to use any of those drugs that keep those advanced in age interested in such matters, and anyway I don’t find it so completely implausible that a person of his generation could hang on fairly faithfully to ideals successfully impressed upon him in a strict upbringing.
A larger interpersonal thesis that the story explores is the idea that most people will only maintain a relationship when the other person can be of some use: Meredith Lagerfeld dupes Henry and Louis into coming out for an evening as a veiled attempt to ask for a ride from Henry for the next day; Louis’s lunch invitation to Mary is only accepted when she needs to ask him to cover for her at work (while she travels to Jamaica with her boyfriend, explaining, “I’m so into Bob Marley”); late in the film Henry only breaks the silent treatment he is giving Louis when he, too, needs to request a favor. Nobody in this universe of selfish individuals can bring him or herself to treat another person well without an ulterior motive, despite the pitifully obvious fact that all each of them desperately craves is a real connection with another human being.
Which ties neatly into another major theme of this film: the fact that each character sees himself as the center of his own universe reflects upon the way we all tend to see our own lives as narratives, complete with story arcs and neatly tied-up plot threads. It is in these moments, when The Extra Man is hinting at an extrapolation on the subjective nature of reality and exploring the ways selfish people fail to connect with one another, when it is truly at its best. Each character essentially sees himself as the lead role in his own separate movie, a fact that becomes explicitly clear through the winking use of a narrator who, halfway through the movie, Louis admits he often imagines “narrating my life as if I’m the protagonist in a classic novel”. Often these characters’ internal narratives run comically counter to their reality, as in Henry Harrison’s vision of himself as a well-born aristocrat – one who is so self-assured that he can urinate in the streets or paint his ankles with grease to disguise how threadbare his socks are, because, as he declares in his self-assured Mid-Atlantic accent, an aristocrat never has to prove himself.
The film’s production and costume design serve these themes well, particularly accenting the wishful obsession the central characters have with placing themselves into bygone eras. Costumes and sets were intentionally distressed to appear older, and Mary tells Louis his style reminds her of someone out of the ‘20s. Most scenes (aside from those set in the rather antiseptic magazine office and a few outdoor moments) mirror the characters’ controlled loneliness by feeling slightly claustrophobic, not only because they take place in over-cluttered rooms but also because they are lit in such a way as to give the shadows at the frames’ borders an antique feel (often employing a process which my design-professional roommate informs me is known as “vignetting”). Irises are often also used to bring us out of and into scenes through this tightly closing-in lens.
The extras included on this DVD are solid. There’s a clip of two voiceover artists in a recording session for a fake cartoon shown in one of the film’s flashbacks, and a five-minute HDNet featurette called “A Look at The Extra Man” that includes brief interviews with Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman and Paul Dano, where they spend a bit of time discussing the film’s focus on old-world or lesser-known high-culture New York locations like the Russian Tea Room and Cinema Village. There’s a nearly ten-minute set of interviews called “Behind the Score Footage”, in which composer Klaus Badelt and additional composer Christopher Carmichael discuss their process in creating the film’s unassuming score, which very effectively compliments the story without intruding into it. There’s one deleted scene, which turns out to be funny enough to be included but forgettable enough to have been justifiably cut out of the feature.
Most rewardingly, there are two different sets of full-length commentaries on the film. The first has a bit of a crowd on board, with journalist Lisa Collins serving as moderator between Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, production designer Judy Becker, and costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb. The second commentary features just Kevin Kline and Jonathan Ames. The two different takes provide an interesting contrast between what a DVD commentary can be (not to mention sometimes conflicting accounts of the same events): the first one is more technically minded, where we learn production details like the fact that the entire shoot was squeezed into 28 days; the second is much more focused on discussion of the characters and story.
In that second one, it becomes more clear than ever how much of the story is actually based on Ames’ real life: he’s more likely to be discussing here how he felt as events transpired, reminiscing as his screen stand-in goes through things that he actually experienced, than explaining his motivation for setting them down on the page or any inspiration for thinking them up. He also briefly discusses the differences between Paul Dano’s subtle and quietly bewildered performance and that of Jason Schwartzman, who portrays a different version of an Ames alter-ego in the HBO series “Bored to Death”. Ames admits, though he seems generally proud of the final product, that he wishes the film could have been split up into a 12-segment miniseries, to mirror the 12 original chapters of his book and avoid the condensing storytelling techniques that are necessary in a typical novel-to-film adaptation. Even so, these filmmakers have pulled off a finer job than most do at this task, and one that rewards repeated revisiting of this world-gone-mad and the crazies trying their best to make sense of it.