Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were the filmmaking couple behind "American Splendor," the wonderful 2003 film as charming as it was brutally honest.
It's a movie many have, no doubt, recently bumped up on their Netflix queues to re-watch, following the sad death of its hero, the comic book writer Harvey Pekar.
In "The Extra Man," Berman and Pulcini are again attempting to adapt a very particular literary sensibility: the Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames. Whereas Pekar detailed his regular schmo life, Ames (whose writing is also the basis of the HBO series "Bored to Death") is a kind of opposite - much more prone to exaggeration and self-conscious quirkiness.
The New York of "The Extra Man" is populated by eccentrics - a gigolo! a Swiss hunchback! - whose eccentricities are designed to be found very eccentric. The cloying quirk stifles "The Extra Man," which is a shame mostly because it does Kevin Kline such a disservice.
Our protagonist is Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a sensitive, excessively polite English teacher who fancies himself a 1920s gentleman out of "The Great Gatsby" - so much so he imagines a narrator in his head, who we occasionally hear announcing Louis' thoughts.
Fired from teaching after what his narrator calls "the brassiere incident," Louis moves to New York and soon takes up a job at a magazine. There, the very environmentally mindful Mary (Katie Holmes) immediately catches his attention.
But Louis' indoctrination to New York doesn't come from his work, but his apartment. Responding to an ad that reads "Gentleman seeks same to share apartment," he moves in with Henry Harrison (Kline), a faded aristocrat whose cluttered, shabby apartment and broken-down Buick don't - at least in his mind - dull his sophistication a bit.
Henry is a character to the tilt. He dances at 7 a.m. in aqua blue sweat pants, knows how to sneak into the opera, deems Henry James "unreadable," applauds the lovemaking of Hassidic women ("They really get it"), says he's "to the right of the Pope" on most sexual issues, is obsessed with Russia and has the habit of finishing the day by pronouncing "So there we are. Where are we?"
He also is an "extra man," a gigolo, who keeps the company of wealthy older women.
If Louis is our Nick Carraway, Henry is our Gatsby, and "The Extra Man" is an ode to him. Kline's performance as Henry - regal in its classical stage pronunciations - is clearly the best thing in the film. But the character still fails to resonate; Henry isn't much more than a bag of peculiarities.
To a certain extent, the New York of such oddballs no longer exists, or at least not in Manhattan. The city got safer and more expensive, and a threadbare, unemployed, unpublished playwright such as Henry isn't likely to be easily found in the more gentrified city.
But Ames' cartoon fetishizing of New York's varied personalities aren't authentic, anyway. Perhaps he knows this. Henry tells Louis, "You may write my biography, but you'll never capture my soul."
Rated R for some sexual content.
'The Extra Man'
Starring Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Rated R (108 minutes).