The Extra Man is a rather unconventional film about a pair of very unconventional characters. Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a young aspiring playwright who moves to New York City after an embarrassing incident that forces him to quit his job. He meets and moves in with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a former professor and playwright who now works as an “extra man,” which he stresses is not the same as a gigolo, or even a male escort; first of all, he doesn’t receive money for his services, and secondly, he doesn’t engage in anything sexual with the wealthy older women who hire him. Instead, he says, he brings a certain air of respectability and class to his engagements, in exchange for gifts and fine meals. In the meantime, he lives the sort of penniless existence that occasionally requires him to paint his ankles and calves with shoe polish in order to disguise the fact that he has forgotten to buy socks, which he says may have the added benefit of killing some of the fleas that inhabit him.
Louis is duly fascinated by Henry’s eccentric, acerbic ways, and Kline delivers one of the best performances of his career, mining big laughs from lines like, “I’m against the education of women. It dulls their senses and effects their performance in the boudoir.” He also rails against such practices as recycling and charity to the homeless, which makes an interesting contrast to Louis’ newfound job at an environmental magazine, where he develops a crush on his vegan, uber-green co-worker, Mary Powell (Katie Holmes). Louis is also fascinated by Henry’s mysterious, bearded neighbor, Gershon Gruen (John C. Reilly), who can be heard through the vents each morning singing beautifully as he showers. Louis is hiding his own eccentricity from his new friends, and without giving away too much about the course this particular character development takes, I will say it is perhaps the most sensitive, realistic exploration of heterosexual cross-dressing since Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
I’m not sure how I wound up there, but this morning I found myself reading Jonah Weiner‘s thoughts about James Nguyen’s “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” the latest “so bad it’s good” production to find some success as a midnight movie and to get more than its share of coverage for so doing. Then I watched the ABC News video which I will present without further comment, except to apologize for the small size of the image. (ABC’s player won’t permit altering the size, for whatever reason.) You might also want to check out this amusing BBC item about it as well.
Okay, so now it’s time to talk about something I’ve learned about the movie world and frequently expressed verbally, but never online.
In my travels around the very lower rungs of the film world, I’ve noted that there are exactly two ways to have a career as a filmmaker. Be extremely well focused, productive and hardworking — being hard working to the point of actual madness won’t hurt, if you and your loved ones survive it — be very smart, passionate, creative, thoughtful, and lucky and you might have a decent-to-great-career.
The other path still involves hard work, or perhaps simply a truly bad case of ADHD and/or mania, and no particular amounts of intelligence or creativity is called for, though passion and luck are still required. But here’s the secret to the second path — no matter how badly something turns out, you must never entertain the thought it might actually be bad. When you ask your best friends what they thought of your script, if they start to look down and change the subject, you must assume that they are doing that because the script is so good they are beyond words. If you’re of a nastier disposition, assume they’re jealous. If you’re somewhere in between, assure yourself that they’re simply unable to comprehend what you’re going for. Can’t blame them if for not being as brilliant as you are.
The next step is to use your honest passion to persuade clueless and/or desperate crew and actors to be in your film for little or no payment and, if you can’t afford to self-finance, get star struck dentists or CPAs to “invest.” When the film is completed, ignore the three awful reviews you were able to garner and dwell on the fact that your film was an official selection of the Rancho Cucamonga Film Festival. Do not notice — much less learn from — your mistakes. That would involve not being delusional, and you need your delusion the way a shark needs teeth.
At this point, you will perhaps be able to find bottom feeding producers who will note that you’ve been able to complete a film — a real achievement in itself. They may then choose to pay for another film for reasons of their own. If not, there are always more dentists and CPAs. The beauty of video technology is that you need fewer of them than you once did, though you’ll also have more delusional competition than before, too.
And then, my son or daughter, you may just have a career. Not a brilliant career, but a career. I have seen this happen with my own two eyes. How do you think Ed Wood kept on working throughout his life, writing novels and screenplays and directing movies despite the fact that he had absolutely no talent for any of it?
But what do you do if your film has the kind of luck that “Birdemic” is enjoying and becomes a midnight cult hit? What if theaters nationwide are full of inebriated youth laughing derisively — an indignity that never quite happened to Ed Wood, though I’m sure he could have used the cash? Do you bow your head in shame all the way to the bank and make off for an island paradise, never to be heard from again? No, because if you had any shame, you wouldn’t have made that terrible but funny movie in the first place. You might have, in fact, made something boring, and that’s the worst fate of all for a movie. Much better to have created something truly memorable.
Nguyen appears to have trademarked the phrase “Romantic Thriller” and declared himself the “master” of it. That takes some balls™.
It’s apparently been making the rounds all day but, while being derided for my lack of expertise in American mainstream cinema of the 1980s, I have just learned that Funny or Die has a trailer up for one biopic of a pop music legend I’d definitely pay to see. And with a cast that includes Aaron Paul, Olivia Wilde, Gary Cole, Academy Award™ winner Mary Steenburgen, and Patton Oswalt, in the role he was born to play — Martin Landau in “Ed Wood” has nothing on this guy — you know you’re in for a memorably powerful, and powerfully memorable, film-going experience.
Regulars might have noticed a bit less movie news this week. Don’t worry, I won’t try to cover everything that happened in movieland this week tonight. Unfortunately, I have to start with three notable deaths.
* The saddest for me personally, and perhaps for some of you horror fans out there, is the most recent. Dan O’Bannon has died from Crohn’s Disease at age 63. Best known for the horror-comedy hit, “The Return of the Living Dead,” and for writing the screenplay for “Alien,” O’Bannon emerged out of U.S.C.’s film school with his friend, John Carpenter and together they collaborated on an odd science fiction comedy called “Dark Star.” While few remember that film, it set them both on a pretty interesting path.
When I was in the middle of high school and at the height of my geekness (three terms as president of the Venice High science fiction club!), I actually met O’Bannon in some odd circumstances at a crisis point in his career. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story, but suffice it to say he seemed like a good guy and he was clearly something of a minor genius. He’ll be very much missed.
* Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney and the son of Roy O. Disney, also passed on at age 79. The younger Disney emerged as a king-maker and king-breaker of sorts, launching insurgent movements that wound up putting Michael Eisner in charge of the studio in 1984 and then deposing him in 2004.
* Finally, if you’re a former film student like myself you’ve probably had to read some of the work of famed academic critic and scholar Robin Wood, who was so respected that almost no one noticed when serious film-criticism aficionado Joss Whedon named a supercool cool high school principal/cum monster-fighter after him on “Buffy.” (How could anyone namecheck him on a mere TV show? It had to be a coincidence.) One of the first critics to approach genre films seriously, he is famous for works on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, among many others. He has passed on at age 78, and the always interesting Glenn Kenny has a remembrance.
Yes, it’s a real mishmash this weekend at the box office and I’ve got less time than usual — but let’s just see how it goes.
Anyhow, the clear winner over the next few days will almost certainly be yet another version of Charles Dicken’s constantly remade and revisited holiday perennial, this time from Disney, “A Christmas Carol.” Jim Carrey stars as Scrooge, who won’t hurt at the box office and Robert Zemeckis, in his “Polar Express” mode, is at the helm. Personally, while I found the earlier motion-capture movie a fun visceral thrill ride in Imax 3-D, despite a story that was the very definition of treacle, I personally find this style of animation extremely ugly; it’s as if it’s always stuck in the armpit of the Uncanny Valley. Moreover critics, including our own David Medsker, complain that Zemeckis gets carried away with the effects and makes things a bit too visceral and scary for the film’s own good. Still, if it worked even for Mr. Magoo, there’s no reason to think it won’t work well enough for some fiscal redemption. THR‘s Carl DiOrio, whose nearly as jolly as an way-too-early St. Nick, is guessing it’ll grab about $40 million in premature yuletide cheer. A split decision by critics is, I suppose, neither here nor there.
After that, we have four films that will be duking it out with two extant strong releases, Michael Jackson’s ghostly final bow, “This Is It,” which may benefit from better than expected word of mouth and, of course, the horrifyingly profitable “Paranormal Activity.” Intriguingly, all these new major releases have a slightly spooky and/or “paranormal” spin and trying to guess which will do best is probably about as wise as playing with a Ouija board at a demon-infested San Diego townhome.