WHY I RENTED IT:
Screenplay is based on novel by Jonathan Ames, creator of HBO’s Bored to Death.
Writer/director duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are the team behind arthouse indie hit American Splendour
I’m a fan of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled 1940s crime fiction and I’ve seen all the movies based on his books.
So when I heard HBO was making a TV series about a young slacker (Jason Schwartzman) who decides to become a private eye in modern day New York after reading a Chandler novel I was hooked. ( And, as he proved in Rushmore no one can play contemporary quirk like Schwartzman.)
Schwartzman plays a character called Jonathan Ames. With a name like that we could assume the show is at least partly based on Ames’ own experiences (although the author appears to deny it in a “behind the scenes” feature for The Extra Man DVD. )
Bored to Death seems to be as much about the character’s on-again, off-again writing career as it is about his misadventures as an unlicensed P.I. That’s okay. The half hour program has a quick, satiric wit, delightfully twisty storylines and a terrific cast including Zach Galifianakis as Ames’ slovenly best buddy Ray (a struggling comic book artist) and Ted Danson as egocentric publisher George Christopher (rumored to be based on Vanity Fair pub Graydon Carter.)
In The Extra Man, the lead character is again an aspiring writer in NYC who takes his cues for living from a novel.
In this case, the writer’s name is Louis Ives, he’s played by Paul Dano and the novel in question is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the 1920s era in which the story is set. (I remember reading the novel in university and wondering what all the fuss was about. However, that may have been because my English prof had a gift for taking classic novels and wringing every ounce of enjoyment out of them.)
To make ends meet after moving to NYC, Louis shares the rent on an apartment with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an eccentric gent who lives in genteel poverty while maintaining the air of a faded aristocrat. Harrison cadges free meals (and otherwise lives in a manner to which he would like to become accustomed) by escorting elderly women to social engagements. Seems that, in proper society circles, a woman, no matter what her age, never attends a social function without a suitably accomplished male escort. Harrison offers to school Ives in the art of being “an extra man.”
(We can assume the character derives his name from Henry Higgins, the pompous professor played by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.)
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Louis is nursing a crush on a young office assistant, played by Katie Holmes. Harrison appears to be asexual.
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Well, for starters, although I thought Paul Dano was uncannily convincing in Little Miss Sunshine and I liked his work in There Will be Blood this role cries out for someone with Schwartzman’s deft quirky touch.
Kline obviously loves his role as the richly eccentric and pretentious Henry Harrison. He isn’t the only one.
Venerable Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers calls Kline’s performance “a master class in acting.”
However, this may be one class the average viewer will want to drop out of or at least try to stay awake until the bell rings.
Flick reminds me of one of those stiff, awkward movies adapted from Broadway plays that never quite translate from stage to film despite the best efforts of cast and crew.
Speaking of which, writing/directing duo Pulcini and Berman, working from Ames’ novel, show little of the creativity and inventiveness that transformed Harvey Pekar’s cranky, misanthropic memoirs into the wonderfully idiosyncratic and entertaining American Splendour.
TBL (The Bottom Line); Obviously, a little bit of Ames goes a long way.