Elevate Difference

The Extra Man

Based on the Jonathan Ames novel of the same title, The Extra Man is a film about, among other things, the amusing network of personal eccentricities that are produced when people engage with each other in society. The society in this film centers around a small cohort of men who live in the same apartment building: Henry Harrison, a self-proclaimed, unapologetic gentleman of yesteryear, who lives off escorting older New York City high society ladies; Louis Ives, a seemingly downtrodden young “gentleman” with a penchant for sexual deviancy (paying sex workers for spankings, cross-dressing) who rents a room from Mr. Henry Harrison and comes to admire the older man greatly; and Gershon, a falsetto-voiced man who dreams of singing melodies in a cave with his dream woman, but compensates for this dream by reading the dictionary, riding his bicycle, and masturbating ceaselessly.

The narrative follows Paul as he arrives into New York City after abruptly leaving his lecture position at an exclusive Princeton prep school (he was caught trying on a female teacher’s bra). Paul takes residence in the city with Mr. Harrison, played brilliantly by Kevin Kline, whose deft ability to perform deadpan comedy sparkles in this film. Positioned as a seemingly unwilling mentor to Paul, played by a mellow, soft-spoken Paul Dano, Mr. Henry Harrison teaches the young man how to become a gentleman—how to scam one’s ways into the opera; how to pee in the middle of the street via strategic hand maneuvers under one’s raincoat; and how, in particular, to regard women as objectified mediums to provide a gentleman’s grandiose, and somewhat garish, lifestyle.

Throughout the film, Paul seems unsatisfied with his life; he longs to be a writer instead of a lowly salesman, he longs to win the heart of his coworker Mary (Katie Holmes), and he longs to “find himself,” as do so many people who boldly move to a big city in an attempt for self-discovery. But Paul, no matter how often he partakes in his sexual fantasies, remains a depressed creature—his apparent happiness emerges only in those moments of interaction with the quirky Mr. Harrison. The denouement of the film occurs when Mr. Harrison discovers Paul cross-dressed as a woman, and so the two have a twenty-four-hour period of separation, in which the kid bemoans his woe-is-me, depressed existence. Of course, the two reunite after realizing that both enjoy each other’s company.

Kline, Dano, and John C. Reilly as Gershon, all perform wonderfully and make their characters memorable via how adeptly each embodies their respective role. The blending of genres, from British-inspired satire to melancholic realism renders the film baffling—as in, I kept looking at my watch, wondering when the film would come to a conclusion. To be honest, though, I don’t believe this reaction to be a fault of the film, but rather the film’s achievement. My guttural response was an effect of the layer of sadness that permeated the film. In other words, if you empathize with those nineteenth century decadents who ruminated on their melancholia for hours in their dimly-lit gray rooms, then, you’ll greatly enjoy this film. If you feel a Nietzschean aversion to this sort, like I do, then you’ll walk away from the cinema in full appreciation of what the film accomplishes, but feeling “mehhh...”

Written by: Marcie Bianco, July 10th 2010