Louis Ives (Paul Dano) was perhaps not meant to be born into the modern world. He's a quiet man whose quiet existence only sparks to life when he's teaching literature set in the 1920s to his students. However, after the headmaster's discovery of him in a compromising position results in his sacking, Louis decides to shake life up, move to Manhattan and become a writer whilst living off his savings. He'll need a room to rent, though. Enter Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an even more 'not of this world' personality than Louis.
Henry was once, at least as he explains, a great writer, but his days are currently spent being an extra man for elderly women who require a man to fill the place of their deceased husbands. Don't dare call him a gigolo, though. He doesn't get paid cash for his services, rather he spends time with these widows so he can reap the benefits of their luxurious lifestyles. Fascinated by the bizarre but alluring nature of Henry's world, Louis allows the cantankerous old man to take him under his wing, to teach him the ways of the extra man.
There's a lot in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's (American Splendor) adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novel to fall in love with, but first and foremost the courtship inevitably begins with Kevin Kline as Henry. He is without question the lifeblood of The Extra Man. Every word out of his mouth, every aloof mannerism is comedic gold. I'm at a loss to think of any other actor thus far this year who takes such unimpeachable ownership of their character the way Kline does. However, Henry is not the sole focus of the film and before long one may find that the discussion of what to love about The Extra Man not only begins with Kline, but ends there, too.
The first third of the film is a wonderful treat whilst Berman and Pulcini carefully craft a strange, inexplicable and yet totally believable microcosm of Manhattan around Louis. Characters and ideas that may seem quirky-for-quirk's-sake in typical indie-minded comedies are perfectly at home here. When we first hear of the hunchbacked Swiss roommate that stole Henry's screenplay or see John C. Reilly, a fellow tenant, looking like a real world version of Harry Potter's Hagrid, it just fits the bohemian fantasy of the movie. After that first third, however, the filmmakers dive deeper into Louis and farther away from Henry and as a result the movie struggles to balance the very real burdens of Louis' identity issues with the very funny (non)conflicts that arise from the fantasy world Henry represents.
Dano really sells the lovelorn and vulnerable nature of Louis, but over time his role becomes overwritten. Moments that should be subtle and self-evident, particularly the conversations surrounding Louis' sexual identity, are too analytical, their origins too perfectly encapsulated. One would think it the opposite, but the more realistic The Extra Man becomes, the more artificial it feels. When it's chiefly Henry's eccentricities on display, everything is in perfect harmony. The dialog is witty, the laughs are large, and the character and performances so strong that the rest of the movie becomes indelible by extension.
It's disappointing, then, that the rest of the movie is the caveat, the footnote to the glory that is Kevin Kline. The moments that aren't extolling the antiquated notions of Henry, particularly in regard to sexual propriety (as the character puts it, you'll find that he's 'to the right of the Pope on most of these issues'), are hardly dire enough to sink the entire movie. They're also not strong enough to lift the movie any higher than the bar set by a single actor. Fortunately that actor and his brilliant performance are strong enough to make The Extra Man's uneven spots worthwhile.