Kevin Kline: The Essential Man

“What I bring is the complete package,” says Henry Harrison, the peculiar gentleman who takes a peculiar youngster under his wing in the new film “The Extra Man.” “Wit, intelligence, an uncommon joie de vivre.” He could be talking about the actor playing the role: Kevin Kline.

After Kline’s more than three decades on stage and screen, it’s no surprise when he turns in a fine performance. He glides from heavy drama (The Ice Storm) to really heavy drama (Sophie's Choice) to silly comedy (The Pirates of Penzance) to really silly comedy (A Fish Called Wanda), to say nothing of all that he’s done onstage. Through all these roles, a distinctive Kline-esque style has emerged. One of the things that distinguishes it is that all the best words to describe it are in French: panache, insouciance, élan.

Kline’s ability to carry burdens lightly is tested here, and then some. The Extra Man is a comedy that hardly makes you laugh. Adapted from Jonathan Ames’s novel of the same name, it rarely achieves the comic tone it desires, nor does it reach the heart strings it seeks to tug. Almost without exception, the moments worth watching lie in Kline’s turn as a playwright who blew his inheritance and became an “extra man”—that is, an escort for rich old ladies at fancy dinners and society functions around town. Because he is broke, he invites a young newcomer to share his dingy New York walk-up. “It’s barracks-style living,” he explains to the dismayed Louis Ives (Paul Dano) in the opening minutes.

Kline’s portrayal of Harrison is a portrait that, in a different film, might have generated real pathos. Silver-haired, elegantly mustached, très distingué (again with the French), Kline shows us a man clinging to his quixotic dignity even as he paints his ankles black for lack of socks. Because the film never lets that pathos develop, we have to settle for seeing him as a goofball. “She stopped breathing for a full minute,” he says brightly of one of his old ladies. “But then she rallied. She always does.” Kline also nails a streak of out-and-out buffoonery in Harrison, whose politics are “to the right of the pope.” He opposes the education of women, refuses to let Louis have overnight guests, and deplores the Whitney Museum, where every exhibit shows “toilet seats and sex organs.” Here is an actor who should be doing Molière.

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have shown they can get fine work from stylish performers. American Splendor showcased Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and James Urbaniak, to say nothing of the real-life figures they portrayed: Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and R. Crumb—who turned up in meta sequences. But except for Kline and Marian Seldes, who has a delightful (if too brief) turn as a grande dame who drinks champagne through a straw, some very talented people look uncomfortable here. Dano, who has been excellent in Little Miss Sunshine, Knight and Day, and some off-Broadway work, is ill-cast as the eccentric young writer who dreams of Gatsby, his cute co-worker (Katie Holmes), and dressing up like a girl. John C. Reilly is underutilized as a neighbor who sports a wavy mane and beard, like he’s a fugitive from Monty Python or some sort of urban troll.

An old knock against Kline is that he turns down almost everything. It’s good news, then, that we’ll see him in something else soon. Later this year, he plays Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, in Robert Redford’s new film about Lincoln’s assassination. Unless Redford is planning a sudden lunge toward the avant-garde, the film won’t let Kline use his full comedic skills or do the singing and dancing that brighten moments of The Extra Man. So we’ll have to keep waiting for the right combination of expansive role and genial company to arrive—one that will let this very gifted actor leave it all on the field (as the running backs say).

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