Jonathan Ames’ writing is reminiscent of alt-cartoonist Ben Katchor, in that both men pay homage to the quirks and vanishing institutions of a major metropolis. The difference is that Katchor’s visions are largely fictional, while Ames tends to explore real spaces. Much like the Ames-anchored HBO series Bored To Death, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s adaptation of Ames’ 1998 novel The Extra Man is trivial, yet oddly ingratiating, largely because of its fascination with distinct breeds of New Yorker. Paul Dano plays a demure Jersey fop who answers an ad and becomes roommates with Kevin Kline, a dapper Manhattanite who knows all the tricks about how to live a life of luxury on a pauper’s income. Kline knows how to sneak into the opera, and how to get invited to fancy parties, where he can serve as lively company to wealthy widows. He’s also possibly gay, though he claims to find all forms of sexual deviance—and indeed sex itself—distasteful.
The Extra Man is kooky to a fault, and Dano is a major drag, with his soft voice and blank expression. But Kline gives a wild, wonderful performance, reminiscent of his work on A Fish Called Wanda. He’s a man who knows all the secrets, though he’s saving a few for himself. As Kline shows Dano how to navigate the decaying, increasingly arcane corridors of New York’s high society, the mentor finds a willing apprentice: someone who’s eager to justify his pathetic life by claiming to live by a code. The Extra Man stumbles whenever it brings other characters into Kline and Dano’s orbit, such as John C. Reilly as a high-voiced hermit, and Katie Holmes as Dano’s manipulative co-worker. They detract from the parts of the movie that work, where Kline teaches Dano and the audience how to be a bum—but a classy bum.