Quirk is probably as emblematic of Sundance at this point as Robert Redford-- stories about misfit families or shaggy loners with bizarre habits are perennial favorites up here in the mountains, to the point that you can read the synopsis for a movie about a carnival barker with lupus or a family of rodeo clowns and say "Yup, that's a Sundance movie."
So what to make of something like The Extra Man, which crams about a dozen Sundance quirk tropes into just two of its characters? Unfortunately the third film from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini is so interested in its own oddball delights that is veers very, very close to disaster. Engaging performances from Paul Dano and Kevin Kline keep things watchable and moving along, but as the movie enters its third act with ancient socialites and a transvestite club, there's a distinct feeling of "That's all?" The premiere audience I watched it with last night, with the cast in the crowd, had been laughing all along but was clearly as mystified as I was.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, who is a creator of the quirky but more successful HBO series Bored to Death, The Extra Man follows the adventures of Louis Ives (Paul Dano, clearly an avatar for the author) as he leaves his high school English teaching job in the suburbs for a more exciting, literary life in Manhattan. Louis is apparently the last twentysomething in New York who searches the classifieds instead of Craigslist, and finds a room on the Upper East Side living alongside Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a one-of-a-kind eccentric who still vaguely resembles every kooky old man you've ever seen onscreen. Henry is a formerly promising playwright living in a moldering apartment and clinging to a battered old car, and his only source of income is serving as an "extra man" escort to society dowagers.
Louis, because of some weird attachment to F. Scott Fitzgerald and an overly literary mind that most people drop by sophomore year, is totally into this, and begins training as an extra man himself. Meanwhile he's working a job at an environmental magazine alongside a hippie hottie (Katie Holmes, trying hard but not getting anywhere). Oh, and Louis is also sort of a cross-dresser, a quirk that seems to serve no purpose beyond setting up an obvious third-act conflict between him and Henry, and actually seems kind of insulting to people with actual gender confusion. An ad promising New York's hottest tranny bar? Puh-lease.
And I haven't even told you about John C. Reilly's performance as an abundantly hairy neighbor with a high-pitched voice, or the Swiss hunchback who stole Henrys' greatest play, or Katie Holmes singing a song about a concrete plant. The meaningless quirks keep on coming, and instead of building a unique world-- which I assume was the appeal of Ames's novel for the directors-- they feel like padding slapped on to a narrative too thin and unbelievable to sustain itself. The basic bizarreness is funny for a long time, until you realize it's not leading you anywhere, and you've spent two hours with people as removed as possible from actual reality.
Given the starry cast, The Extra Man will probably get picked up before too long, and can sell itself based on Kline's hammy performance, Dano's sensitive one, and the promise of seeing a lot of weird stuff in a short running time. But The Extra Man is primarily a giant disappointment, proof that quirk without direction or purpose can feel just as boring as a story about more ordinary people.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.