The Extra Man
Dir.: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Wr.: Jonathan Ames

Starring:  Paul Dano, Kevin Kline, Katie Holmes, John C. Reilly

Last night, The Extra Man premiered at the Eccles Theater, the Sundance Film Festival’s largest venue (over 1,000 seats).  It is the story of idealists who exist just outside of the commonly accepted reality of New York City, attempting to justify their idiosyncrasies to each other and themselves.  The film is directed by co-directors Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini whose previous collaboration was the Harvey Pekar biopic/documentary American Splendor, and written by novelist and scribe of HBO’s Bored to Death Jonathan Ames.  The films co-directors and principal cast were in attendance and indulged the audience with a brief Q&A after the screening.  Check out the full review, after the jump…

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is an idealistic high school English teacher, who fancies himself a protagonist in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story.  After being fired from his position for acting on a fantasy by trying on ladies underwear in the teachers lounge, Louis moves into Manhattan with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline, an aristocratic playwright, who is eccentric to say the least, in his cramped and dingy one bedroom apartment.  He gets a job selling ad space in an environmental magazine, and falls for his hyper-vegan coworker, Mary (Katie Holmes).  However, he is unable to charm her, and sinks into introversion.  Harrison decides to raise him from his depths by teaching him how to be aristocracy; specifically, sneaking into the opera at half-time, urinating in public without being noticed, and providing, ahem, “companionship” to the elderly, wealthy women of Manhattan’s upper-crust.  Along the way, they must face the fact that their quirks simply serve to help them deny their faults and flaws, but find the support in each other to draw themselves out and enrich their lives.

It would be very easy to peg this film as Little Miss Sunshine meets Midnight Cowboy, however it is much more than that.  The language of Ames’ screenplay is flowery and elegant, choosing to exclude the snarky and quippish quality that has defined recent independent films like Juno.  Ames has the ability to turn the bustling metropolis of New York City, into a seemingly small community of people who live on their own terms, rather than for the city.  This is certainly true of his show Bored To Death, which shows New Yorkers turning to the world of film noir and pulp fiction to escape the banality of their tedious relationship issues.  It is similarly done in this film, however with a touch of class, rather than ironic grit.  The story moves along at an ambling pace, revealing more and more of our heroes desperation to realize their utopian visions of human interaction, with more than enough humor to keep audiences amused for the duration.

Paul Dano holds his own as the nebbish yet passionate protagonist, plagued by anxiety and awkwardness.  He sheds the confidence and authority he displayed in There Will Be Blood and the teenage angst from Little Miss Sunshine, showing pure desperate longing for love.  However, the film’s standout performance is Kevin Kline.  He denies his lower class trappings with such utter conviction, and pontificates with a seemingly inside-out knowledge of the fairer class, in a glorious timbre generally reserved for the theater.  And while such big acting may otherwise be too over the top for film, it simply doesn’t seem the slightest bit out of place for this character.  John C. Reilly’s character and performance serve to flesh out a world in which these bizarre individuals might exist, as Harrison’s nearly silent handyman/neighbor who looks as if Alan Ginsburg and Mickey Mouse had a baby.  His presence in this film solidifies that it feels natural and real.  Easily the weakest part of this film is Katie Holmes.  She strides through the scenes looking more gaunt than gorgeous, and doesn’t seem to understand her characters role in the film.  She applies the same amount of affectation to her character as the other actors, even though she is meant to play the closest thing to a normal person in the film.  She is meant to be the straight-man, but ends up coming off as childish.  She delivers her lines with a bizarre, wide-eyed quality that seems to suggest she was learning them up until the directors yelled “Action!”  Luckily, Mr. Dano has the presence to mask this and keep the scenes moving along.

The Extra Man seems a perfect film to be screened at Sundance; it centers around odd individuals living on the fringe of society, gracefully managing to make a niche for themselves in a world that would just as soon ignore them.  That sounds like a metaphor for independent film if I’ve ever heard one.