I have enjoyed Jonathan Ames’ writing since the late 90s, when his New York Press column was filled with harrowing accounts of his experiences with Mangina, as well as his woebegotten career as a pugilist. Recently I read all of his books, and The Extra Man immediately jumped out at me as a potential movie (so fie on the Post critic who had the opposite opinion — we’ll get to him in a minute). Written in 1998, The Extra Man tells the story of a disgraced private school teacher who moves to New York and rents a room in the very shabby apartment of a former man of means who squandered what was left of his inherited wealth and now supplants his meager salary as a playwriting professor by escorting wealthy dowagers to social gatherings. The strength of the book is the three dimensionality of the latter character, Henry Harrison, evidently drawn from life, and a hilarious, sad example of shabby nobility, reminiscent of Chaplin’s Tramp, Falstaff, Micawber, and a dozen others I could name. The character is so vivid and well wrought you carry him around in your head with you. The other main character, the narrator, is by design more passive, a sort of Nick Carraway or Boswell, relieved of being a complete cipher in the tale by the fact that he has a secret life in which he wears women’s clothes and patronizes prostitutes.
Aside from the transvestism, I found that I related strongly to the experiences of the protagonist, who straddles the worlds of extreme (if genteel) poverty and the society of rich folk. (In the book, one of his adventures even takes him to the New-York Historical Society where I used to work and met more than my share of Henry Harrisons. And I once met Marian Seldes, who plays one of the dowagers in the film, when I was earning $300 a week at Theater for the New City. She kissed me on the cheek!) . The takeaway from such schizophrenia, baneful as it is, is that when you’ve met enough rich people with B.O., nervous tics, eczema and other similar vulnerabilities, you begin to recognize them as members of your own species and relax a little.
The book is wonderfully realized for the screen by co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the couple responsible for American Splendor, which is about a similarly tawdry subject, comic book author Harvey Pekar. They co-wrote the screenplay with Ames, who has a brief cameo. One of the interesting changes, which seems to work, is to switch the narration from first person, to an omniscient one, modeled on the authorial voice of the main character’s beloved Fitzgerald. The main character, as played by Paul Dano, is also a deviation. Lacking Ames’ real life (and the novel’s character’s) baldness, a source of insecurity, Dano more resembles a lesser known member of the Monkees. I would imagine this is an attempt to get young viewers to embrace the character, whom as realized here also lacks the noirish/beatnik aspects of Ames’ personality, making him a seeming naif in the big city.
The highlight of the film is Kevin Kline’s performance, which may be overall the best thing I’ve seen him do. (I used to be enamored of his fireworks in Sophie’s Choice, but these days it rings false to me). Generally I find him too artificial for the big screen, his Julliard diction and manners spoiling the plausibility of any character not written before 1910. The role of Henry Harrison seems made for him; he wears it like an old, fingerless glove. Unfortunately, the film contains no money shot or Oscar moment that’s likely to garner attention. But as a sustained, full, memorable performance, he’s done some very fine work. I hope it gets recognized. (Also I should mention that John C. Reilly is hilarious as a large, bewhiskered handy man who speaks in a high-pitched, falsetto voice, except when he sings). (Also, a shout to Alicia Goranson, who was in one of the Brick’s Baby Jesus festivals and has a small part in the film).
In general, the critical reaction to the film has been nothing short of idiotic. I feel the need to pick on a couple.
One of the critics for the New York Post who is ordinarily very smart bemoans the fact that “nothing happens” in the movie. I would argue that, so what? The book is a self-announced picaresque. As in Don Quixote (on which Ames partially modeled his book) and Huckleberry Finn and countless other similar works (including many popular Hollywood films from the early 1970s), MUCH happens in the moment-to-moment, and the time spent having all of those little adventures together constitutes the arc.
I must take the same critic to task for implying that the writers arbitrarily threw in the drag scenes for cheap laughs. As I see it, the role of the critic is interpretation. He instructs his readers (who are presumably less learned than he on matters of art) in appreciation. To do his job properly he must have at least a glancing familiarity with his subject (i.e., the artists and their art). This is where modern critics, especially at the dailies where they are always under the gun, fail to a degree that amounts to malfeasance. At any rate, if he’d known anything about Ames’ work (which ranges from the autobiographical to the semi-autobiographical) he’d know that a morbid, unhappy obsession with drag and other forms of sexual experimentation occur thoughout his work. It is neither just thrown in, nor is it necessarily for laughs.
Over at the Daily News, their film critic misses the boat three times over in claiming the film is too low-budget to depict the “opulence” to which the characters “aspire”. First, she’s merely wrong. The film clearly depicted that world to my satisfaction, containing several scenes at the Russian Tea Room, Carnegie Hall, an art museum and a mansion. What more do you want? Second, since when has a budget been a legitimate subject for criticism? And lastly, it’s by no means been established that the characters “aspire” to the wealth of their aged lady friends. The way I read it, it is what it is. They aspire to nothing much more than what they already have, the pleasure, as Henry says, of music, a meal and pleasant surroundings to offset their unbearably bleak reality. And, as for them “giving up” something to “pursue” this wealth, in case you haven’t noticed, these characters are at the bottom of a very deep barrel.
Lastly, this movie scores VERY big points for painting New York living as it really is. 80% of the people who live here live in what the rest of America would consider very shabby circumstances indeed. Films generally gloss over that — no one would believe the reality. This film shines a very bright light on it. For this, and for reasons listed above, it scores high marks from your correspondent.
As an added extra bonus, here’s a recent interview with Jonathan Ames concerning the graphic novelization of his book The Alcoholic, conducted by the indefatigable Adam McGovern: http://www.comiccritique.com/cgi-bin/gcolumn.pl?id=525