Comedies are probably my least favorite kind of film—mostly because they’re typically not funny. With few exceptions, most start out with a good premise—say, a country bumpkin moving to the big city—and perilously swivel out of control from there, tossing in everything from lion attacks to tranny makeover sessions. So is the case with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, a movie that starts out charming enough, complete with old timey-narration and sepia-toned imaginings of pasts gone-by, but quickly devolves into “zany hijinks” territory. Contrary to whatever press you’ve read, hilarity does not ensue.
After getting laid off from his position as an English teacher at Princeton prep school—presumably for getting caught trying on a misplaced bra— Louis Ives (Paul Dano) uproots and moves to New York City, where he quickly finds a $350/mo room in the company of Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) an eccentric ex-English professor and playwright. Henry collects “Christmas balls”. He tribal dances to bad seventies disco hits at seven in the morning. He makes a living as the titular “extra man” to Vivian (Marian Seldes), an aging widow of high society—that is, he “escorts” her to public events to provide conversation and “ensure the table is even”. Together, Louis and Henry sneak into the opera using stolen tickets, cruise Manhattan in a ratty old car, and slowly learn to dislike each other—Louis for Henry’s opportunistic approach to relationships and Henry for Louis’s weinery lifestyle. After scoring a job with an eco-mag, Louis soon falls in love with the unobtainable Mary Powell (Katie Holmes), an insufferable bitch who flouts her veganism and New Age “openness” in everyone’s face. If that roster of characters didn’t sound “wacky” enough, Louis occasionally suffers from battles with transexualism—teases the idea of going full-blown tranny, clipping ads for transsexual-friendly clubs and eventually inviting a makeover artist to turn him into a women using a nightie he stole from Mary. This doesn’t jive with the highly disapproving, faux Catholic Henry, who of course shows up just as the makeover ends.
You know what? There’s a lot more to the story but I don’t feel like relaying it; it’s reminding me too much of watching the film. There’s an absurd subplot about a foreign hunchback stealing Henry’s play, John C. Reilly makes an appearance as the squeaky-voiced, sometimes operatic and constantly overbearded Gershon, Kevin Kline rubs his crotch with a dog, and a stuffed lion attacks Louis’s car, but none of that is funny. The problem with The Extra Man is that it thinks these things are—went out of its way to make every line and event a joke. These aren’t characters as much as they are charicatures, and the comedic pacing is relentlessly constant; it’s like being trapped in a room with a person who thinks he’s the funniest man alive, but who’s actually just corny and a little sad. If you like old Monty Python skits you may—may—enjoy this film, but even they had a modicum of reserve and notion of pacing. Otherwise you’re gonna need a lot of popcorn.