Comedy Oddities: The Extra Man

Jonathan Ames is one of my favourite writers, his novel Wake Up Sir! is a hilarious read and his collections of short stories and non-fiction tales like What’s Not to Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer and My Less Than Secret Life are a delight as well. Throw in to the mix the superb tv series Bored To Death and Blunt Talk and the graphic novel The Alcoholic and you had a man who’d created fantastic work in all of the mediums I’m fondest of, bar cinema. But in 2010 this was rectified when his novel The Extra Man was adapted for the big screen by Ames himself and Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, both of whom are best known for American Splendour, the film based on the Harvey Pekar graphic novel (which I’m extremely fond of), and this suggested the adaptation was in good hands at least. It partially works too, but by omitting a major part it’s a duller and less exciting film than it should have been.

It tells of a young man, Louis Ives (Paul Dano) who is fired from his job teaching at a private school when he is unable to resist examining the bra of another teacher that he finds in the teacher’s lounge. Let go by the school (supposedly due to a lack of funding, but Louis is well aware of the actual truth) he moves to Manhattan and looks for somewhere to live, encountering the incredibly eccentric Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) and his tiny apartment that he chooses to live in. Henry teaches Louis how to be a Gentleman, and an Extra Man too, which involves non-sexual escorting of single elderly women and includes how to get in the opera for free and obtain free food by attending gallery openings. But Louis has a secret, he dreams of cross dressing, and being intimate with transgender people.

Performance wise Paul Dano is perfect as the shy but still adventurous Louis Ives, and Kevin Kline captures Henry’s somewhat odd stand offish behaviour with remarkable skill, delivering Ames’s unique dialogue with aplomb. As with the book it covers some of Ames’s favourite themes like his obsession with transgender people, a fondness for transgressions against societal norms, and his love for The Great Gatsby, and it does use many of the best lines from the novel, like Henry’s description of a date with Vivian Cudlip – “It was fine. Except she stopped breathing for a full minute. But then she rallied. She always does” and his technique of urinating in the street without people noticing. Kline’s version of Henry’s unusual dancing is also a delight, but Paul Dano gets to shine as well, especially when conflicted about his feelings concerning cross dressing. Katie Holmes is the other main character, playing one of the objects of Louis’s affections, Mary, but it’s something of a thankless task, the role is expanded upon here but she’s still not a character of any real interest.

The novel was Ames’s second book and though strong is still the work of a writer finding his feet, there’s an awful lot to enjoy about it but it could have done with being slightly tighter as the plot is fairly loose and meandering, at least until it’s end. The film is certainly tighter and there’s less repetition than there is in the book, and it moves at a fast pace with Louis meeting Henry within seven minutes, Louis asking out Mary very early on, and Henry and Louis escorting Lois (Lynn Cohen) and Meredith Lagerfeld (Celia Weston) long before he even visits Sally’s bar for the first time. But unfortunately it’s not without it’s flaws, John C. Reilly plays Henry’s friend Gershon with a silly high pitched voice, Louis’s friendship with his Aunt is sadly completely absent, and Henry’s trip to Florida and Louis’s anguish at his leaving, and his desperation to be considered a close friend of Henry’s, is downplayed.

But the biggest issue is that Louis’s obsession with transgender individuals only comes in to play an hour and twenty minutes in, and during that time he only makes one visit to Sally’s bar whereas in the novel he guiltily visits many times, it’s where he meets Miss Pepper but in the film he doesn’t become close friends with her, or have sexual incidents with any of the transgender prostitutes he meets. Exploring a person’s various kinks is a major theme for Ames in this book and elsewhere and by hardly including it the film feels far more conventional and dull. The ending is also changed so that Henry encounters Louis dressed as a woman instead of with a prostitute, which is a choice that makes the story less compelling. The film chooses to be an odd couple friendship movie instead which isn’t a problem per se, it’s the main theme of the book after all, but by barely exploring Louis’s sexuality it misses out a large chunk of the novel, making it a much flimsier effort, and it’s a less interesting work because of this.

Alex Finch.

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