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MOVIE REVIEW

The Extra Man

Misfits don’t quite take Manhattan in ‘The Extra Man’

Paul Dano (with Katie Holmes) plays an out-of-step dreamer who leaves rural academia for a sales job in New York. Paul Dano (with Katie Holmes) plays an out-of-step dreamer who leaves rural academia for a sales job in New York. (Magnolia Pictures)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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The movies have had a long love affair with New York and the soulful misfits who find each other there. “Midnight Cowboy,’’ “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ even “The Odd Couple’’ are about eccentrics connecting in Manhattan when nowhere else will have them. “The Extra Man’’ is the latest entry in the genre. Kindhearted and broad-minded, it’s also curiously unpersuasive, not because the characters are too bizarre — this is New York, there’s no such thing — but because their peculiarities feel so forced.

In fact, it may be time for Paul Dano to stop playing gently deluded young men out of step with the modern world, even if his character, Louis Ives, is the most interesting person in “The Extra Man.’’ He’s a prim dreamer who feels most at home in the literary worlds of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James; the 21st century leaves Louis thoroughly perplexed. He also might be a cross-dresser, if he could work up the nerve.

The film finds its stride when Louis leaves rural academia and arrives in New York, finding a sales job at an environmental lifestyle magazine and a rented bed in the apartment of one Henry Harrison, an aging English teacher, playwright, and possible gigolo. Henry is played — no, that’s the wrong word. Henry is embodied through ripely enunciated overacting and a possible partnership with Boar’s Head Black Forest ham by Kevin Kline, who has decided that if this isn’t his greatest performance, it may as well be his mostest. As such, it’s much too much.

Henry has grandiloquent manners and a spiteful heart; he likes saying things like “Women shouldn’t be educated — it affects their performance in the boudoir,’’ and seeing if anyone will rise to the bait. He belongs to that species of New Yorker that has no money, yet appears to live large; an invitation to Louis to attend the opera becomes a droll farce of discarded ticket stubs and faked Alzheimer’s.

Henry’s a blowhard, a weirdo, and a user, but one of the points of “The Extra Man’’ is that being used teaches Louis how to enjoy life and find his own different drumbeat. I think that’s the idea, anyway; where writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini found a way to turn Harvey Pekar’s comics into 2003’s heartbreakingly fine “American Splendor,’’ their nerve and their art fail them here. Maybe the intervening “The Nanny Diaries’’ threw their rhythms off, but this is filmmaking both obvious and halfhearted.

Everyone in the film is an uninteresting grotesque. Henry’s downstairs neighbor, a sullen fellow with the hair and beard of a troll, turns out to be John C. Reilly under all the foliage, but the filmmakers have him speak in a ridiculous high falsetto that blows believability out of the water. The great theater actress Marian Seldes turns up as an ancient heiress; her scenes go nowhere. Patti D’Arbanville, onetime Warhol princess and Don Johnson paramour, has too little screen time as a “spankologist’’ with an unexpected heart. And there’s Katie Holmes in the smallish role of the hero’s self-absorbed vegan co-worker — the one thinly-sketched “normal’’ in the movie.

“The Extra Man’’ is most intrigued by Louis as he tries to find himself, in or out of a frock. Dano gives a tenderly observed, achingly sympathetic performance as this lost soul who narrates his own life like a Henry James novel, and we’re grateful for the glimpses we get of Louis’s stiffening spine. We sense that he’ll make it here someday — if he can just get out of this movie.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

THE EXTRA MAN

Written and directed by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on a novel by Jonathan Ames

Starring: Paul Dano, Kevin Kline, Katie Holmes, John C. Reilly

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (some sexual content)

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