I loved Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. I can understand that—and I understood it even before I spent part of Sunday involved in an e-mail argument with another critic, who admitted to admiring it, but didn’t exactly like it, saying it left her feeling that she needed to take a shower. My views on the film are the polar opposite of hers, but it’s a point of interpretation, since if I felt the film did what she feels it did, I’d share her view. And in some ways I think that makes the film just that much more interesting. This is one of those films that I can’t quite give five stars to now, but will likely end up wishing I had after a couple more viewings.
The film is a comic—sometimes bleakly comic—character study of two deeply strange and even damaged men and the often just as strange and damaged people in their sphere. The two men end up as the most unlikely of roommates in a cramped and cluttered New York City apartment. The apartment belongs to Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an unflinchingly superior, self-righteous failed playwright and professional “extra man” (male escort), who specializes in squiring elderly women about town. Henry has opinions on everything—usually odd and invariably highly “moral” (especially concerning sex)—and has no compunction about sharing them, an unappealing trait he combines with being bluntly honest to the point of rudeness and beyond.
Into this setting comes Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a young man recently fired from a prep school in Princeton owing to his proclivity for cross-dressing. Cut free from his job, Louis has come to New York to be a writer—of the F. Scott Fitzgerald variety. Specifically—and this is key—he sees himself as the embodiment of the personality-less Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, a work he views as Carraway’s—and by extension Fitzgerald’s—“love letter” to the title character. Louis has no friends and no family—and apart from his vaguely defined and scarcely understood desire to dress in women’s clothes, he is much like Carraway in personality.
On the surface, Henry and Louis might seem to be mismatched, but not only do they share the quality of having been mismatched with life, there’s something more. An opinionated older man confronted with an obviously malleable young man—in whom he may see something of his own youthful self—is not likely to be blind to the opportunity of forming a protégé. And a young man with a personality deficit is bound to be fascinated—if frequently appalled—by an older man who, if anything, has too much personality. The friendship is actually more likely than it appears at first glance, but it’s a friendship that neither man can quite own up to, because it’s not in their natures, especially not in Henry’s.
The film requires a certain amount of patience—and a good deal of understanding—to catch the importance of small gestures and lines of dialogue. The greatest trick to understanding the film’s intent is, I believe, grasping the fact that Henry’s outrageous behavior and rudeness is a protective covering. We’re never told the exact event or events that caused him to be like this—though we are given conflicting second-hand stories and guesses—but it becomes obvious. It also becomes slowly obvious—if we pay attention—that Henry’s constant exploitation of his friends is as much for interaction (he can’t bring himself to ask for companionship) as it is for convenience. And it becomes obvious in certain gestures—and one heart-breaking line that might almost be missed—that he is not the monster he wants people (perhaps even himself) to think he is.
Similarly, Louis’ lack of personality protects him: If there’s no one there for anyone to know, no one can get close enough to hurt him. The strangest thing about Louis—and the thing he comes to understand—is that he knows what he thinks he wants, and he knows what he thinks he is supposed to want, but has no real glimmer of what he actually wants.
The film presents itself as a comedy—and it more or less is one—but it’s really a very sad comedy with a tentatively hopeful ending. In this regard—and a few others—it’s a bit reminiscent of Wes Anderson, but don’t take that comparison too far. However, be sure you stick around through the inspired choice of T. Rex’s “Dandy in the Underworld” over the credits—and listen to the words. Rated R for some sexual content.