From directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made a confident debut with 2003's American Splendor only to follow up with the disastrous Nanny Diaries in 2007, The Extra Man is the sort of bohemian comedy that comes along far too rarely. For its directors it's a clear statement of intent that the pair has no interest in treading comfortable ground to make a living. For audiences, it's a wonderfully surreal jaunt into a delightfully nutty upper-class world.
Paul Dano is the schoolteacher, Louis Ives, who's fired from his position at a fancy suburban college when he's interrupted trying on a colleague's bra. Jolted into moving to the big city, Ives finds a spare room in the Manhattan flat of one Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) whose modest and cash-poor lot in life sees him flitting from soiree to social on the arm of batty rich pensioners whose husbands have long since died.
Through Henry, Louis discovers a brand new world, and his flamboyant roommate – who may, or may not, be gay, but would rather like the hand of one of his octogenarian girlfriends so he can live the high life on a permanent basis – schools him in the art of being an 'extra man'.
But their journey together is fraught with peril, as Louis becomes ever more fascinated with his strange fetish for cross-dressing and as he realises that Henry may well be mad, exemplified through a grudge with his Yeti-like neighbour Gershon (John C. Reilly), who may have stolen one of his plays in years past.
Based on a book by Jonathan Ames, The Extra Man takes quirky comedy to new levels, so it's no wonder it so appealed to the Sundance programmers who found it a world premiere slot. That festival, a bountiful source for Edinburgh six months later, turned quirky comedy into an indie staple, and The Extra Man checks every box defining that subgenre.
In spite of its ever more elaborate fantasy, though, it's never anything less than amusing, with riotous performances from its leads which can't help but engage. Dano relishes the comedy here, finding an unusual blend of innocence and perversion that's never less than watchable. Reilly is similarly hilarious as Gershon, particularly when he's given his first lines of dialogue some halfway through the film.
But it's Kline who really shines, finding a character so perfectly suited to his comedic talents as the bumbling know-it-all wrenched from another time. It's a role he's inhabited in the past, but here it's taken to an engaging extreme that ensures every time Henry appears his peculiar philosophies are always worth hearing.
Louis makes ends meet with a proper job, at an environmental magazine, and in his jaunts to this 'real world' the film does lose its way somewhat. Katie Holmes is the only major character in the piece not effortlessly engaging, and her flirtatious moments with Dano's Louis feel like distractions to the main event.
Still, for the film's directors, The Extra Man feels altogether more on-track than The Nanny Diaries and encourages us to forget that distraction and treat this as their sophomore effort. By any approach, it's a wondrous tonal shift from their past efforts and indicative of talents keen to keep surprising us.