Independent Film Festival of Boston: The Extra Man / Harmony and Me

Now in its eighth year, the Independent Film Festival of Boston (or Biff, as I affectionately call it) has solidified its position as New England’s premier film event, only getting better as times goes on. Biff celebrates all that is alive and burgeoning in independent filmmaking by trotting out its typically diverse lineup of narrative films, documentaries and shorts, featuring work by established directors and fledgling first-time filmmakers, and boasting name stars and young up and comers, .

This is my fourth year covering the festival for PopMatters, and in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to see some great diamonds in the rough. I’ve also seen some real dogs that never should have made it past the vetting process of the festival board–or even been allowed for consideration in the first place. Sadly, I’ve spent more time trying to sort out schedules and conflicts than seeing actual films, and whiffed on seeing films that broke out of the festival to have some popular success (e.g. 500 Days of Summer, from last year) in favor of films that I thought would do better (Beeswax, also from last year).

In fact, this has happened so often over the last three years that this year I’m consciously going against all my instincts. (Hopefully this will prove as successful as it did for George Costanza).

So, on to the films – and there are a lot of them. They need previewing, watching, and reviewing. I’ll be doing a little of the first and a bit of the latter in these posts, but mostly I’ll be holed up over the weekend and well into next week, at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, or the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. (The great joke of the Boston Indie Film Festival is that very little, if any, of it is ever actually held in Boston).

Opening Night

The Extra Man

For various reasons I’ve missed the last two opening night films at the festival (though, by all accounts, I didn’t miss much either time). So this time around I made it a point to be there, come hell or high water. This year’s opening film is The Extra Man, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the team that co-directed American Splendor) and stars Paul Dano, Kevin Kline and Katie Holmes. Kline was present at the screening to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement award (which they seem to hand out sporadically). His Q&A session following the film was droll and rambling, and he fielded questions with mischievousness and humility.

As for the film itself, it’s a good thing Kline is good – quite good, in fact. Without his strong and steady performance, The Extra Man would have probably collapsed under the weight of its self-conscious preciousness and eccentric deviancy.

Paul Dano, moonfaced and awkward, plays Lewis, a weird admixture of callow, gratingly affected hipster, (and transvestite in training), who has moved to New York to become a writer and discover himself. Lewis’ need to find cheap lodging finds him taking a cheap room in a cramped apartment with Kline’s Henry Harrison – fortunate for him and for us, since Kline salvages what could have been (should have been) an insufferable quirkfest and transforms the film into a wildly erratic, but touching comedy.

Harrison exists along a narrow continuum, somewhere between Falstaff and Royal Tenenbaum: a shabby old cadge living in squalor, prone to vivid, theatrical flights of fancy, and conducting himself as an old-fashioned bon vivant. Oddly prudish, misogynistic, stubborn, myopic, and bloviating, he is at once larger than life and pathetic, an eccentric who fits in exactly nowhere. Failing at glory, he is a former playwright reduced to teaching remedial English at a community college. Harrison’s main vocation when we meet him as the “extra man” of the title is, however, an escort and consort to rich old women who are susceptible to his, er, “charms”. He’s basically a gigolo, except he never sees a cent. He aims to teach young Lewis his tricks.

Their relationship is the hub around which the rest of the film’s odd events revolve. The film is not nearly as insufferable as it should be, and is actually quite enjoyable for long stretches. It’s actually quite funny, most of the time. In the end, however, The Extra Man suffers from surplus quirk and loses any chance for real poignancy, losing itself in the catalogue of its protagonist’s tics.

Second Night

Harmony and Me

So slight that’s it’s barely there, Harmony and Me is so concerned with staring at its own navel that it rarely looks up to acknowledge the audience. This is the only way it can work, and is mostly appropriate, since its solipsistic main character, Harmony (Justin Rice, who played a similar role in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation), spends so much time moping around.

And that’s pretty much it. Breaking up with his girlfriend before the opening credits role, Harmony spends the next 75 minutes wandering around in a prolonged funk, trying to forget her and remember what it was about her that made him fall in love with her in the first place. We have a hard time understanding why, since every time he runs into her she comes across as a soulless harpy – I guess Harmony does too, and his confusion overwhelms him.

The film is at its best when Rice is allowed to plink around on the piano or strum a guitar. (Rice is a musician and plays in the band Bishop Allen). The songs he starts to write post break-up start to burble up in snippets as the film goes along, finally starting to coalesce in triumphant completion by film’s end. I’m not sure the film is supposed to be about the healing/cathartic powers of artistic creation (I don’t think it’s really about anything at all), but when the credits role, the only thing you’ll remember is the hilarious song about working at the parking office which Rice seems to compose spontaneously, on the spot.

Pleading exhaustion, I skipped the later screenings after Harmony and Me. Two nights in and I’m already pooped – this does not augur well.