An imperious older New York eccentric mentors a promising young one in “The Extra Man,” a highly entertaining character comedy exemplified by the same virtues the titular leading man ascribes to himself — wit, intelligence and joie de vivre. Kevin Kline soars in one of his best screen roles, that of an impoverished self-styled aristocrat who contrives to live the high life as an escort to wealthy old ladies. Although too devoted to matters literary, theatrical, operatic and sexually outre to make it with general audiences, this adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel exudes the sort of smarts and sophisticated charm specialized audiences seek.
Bouncing back to form impressively from “The Nanny Diaries,” “American Splendor” writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have made a sort of timeless New York story, one centered on a relative innocent who comes to the big city and ends up being tutored in ways he could never have expected by an idiosyncratic gentleman of high style who expresses cracked opinions with such eloquence and authority that they brook no argument. There have been many such tales, but this one brings to mind “My Favorite Year,” primarily for the theatrical flamboyance of the older characters and for the brilliance of the actors playing them, then Peter O’Toole and now Kline.
One key difference is that the young man here is not a total blank sheet waiting to be written upon, but a genuine oddball with his own extreme eccentricities. Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a gangly, polite, formal, dough-faced prep school English teacher whose twin obsessions — old literature and cross-dressing — are expressed in a dream he has of “The Great Gatsby” in which he appears in drag.
Let go from his job, Louis arrives in New York to explore new horizons and, answering an ad for cheap accommodations, is confronted not only with a shabby apartment and very Spartan quarters, but with its occupant, Henry Harrison, who’s offering the extra room. A college literature teacher himself and allegedly a playwright, Henry is a throwback in style as well as perspective; he speaks in the British-tinged stentorian tones of early 20th century actors, has a wardrobe almost that old, and polishes his gray hair with black tint when he goes out on the town. Admitting to views about sex and women that are “to the right of the Pope,” he believes that American education started declining when females were admitted to colleges and will not allow Louis to bring visitors to the apartment. “No fornication!” he bellows.
Not that there’s much imminent danger of that. Other than his discreet visits to a tranny bar and to a couple of women who assist him with his cross-dressing wardrobe, Louis seems almost unformed sexually; his “bipolar fantasies,” as he puts it, are to become a young gentleman and to see a girl when he looks in the mirror. While he tries to work that one out, he begins accompanying Henry on his social rounds — at dinners where the acerbic older man tries not to insult his hosts so he’ll be invited back to Palm Beach for the winter season; and to the opera, where Henry teaches his protege his technique for getting in for free.
In due course, Louis gets a job at a small environmental magazine, where he sort of befriends co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes), whom he may see as a “Gatsby” Daisy — and whose lingerie he covets. There’s also a subplot concerning Gershon (John C. Reilly), a building weirdo with giant hair and beard who, despite his frightening appearance, speaks in a very odd falsetto, as well as one involving Henry’s former boarder, whose arrival on the scene precipitates the somewhat arbitrary and indifferent wrap-up.
But the core of the film remains the interactions between teacher and student. Henry and Louis have major differences — there’s no one who could possibly agree with all of the curmudgeon’s outrageous views — but Henry likes Louis because they speak the same language. For all the aggravation, Louis knows he has a lot to learn from his unique host, who has such a commanding presence that it’s hard not to come under his sway, even when looking askance at the substance of his remarks.
The same holds true for the viewer, given the mesmerizing allure of Kline’s outsized but impeccably calibrated performance. Perhaps no contemporary American actor can carry off the sort of classical stage enunciation he can, and here he applies it to a character who uses it both for the effect he knows it creates but, even moreso, out of personal affinity. Henry has a tremendous sense of style, only it’s a style of 80 years ago, which is what makes him so funny, an effect compounded by Kline’s exceptional sense of timing.
By contrast, Dano soft-pedals his characterization to excellent effect; Louis seems like a rather calculated sort of misfit on paper, but Dano’s underplaying and innate physical oddness make him not only palatable but oddly sympathetic. The actresses playing the women in the men’s social orbit, including Marian Seldes, Celia Weston, Patti D’Arbanville and Lynn Cohen, are all delights.
Terry Stacey’s lensing is vibrant, production designer Judy Becker has poured considerable detail in Henry’s worn apartment, Suttirat Larlarb’s costume designs show real wit and Klaus Badelt’s score is a vigorous asset.