The Extra Man Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini Cairo Time Directed by Ruba Nadda Two bad educations in identity and desire

Tux Capacitor: Dano, left, and Kline draw from The Great Gatsby.

A dismissed prep-school teacher moves to Manhattan to indulge in yearnings both writerly and otherwise in The Extra Man, an adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novel whose literary flavoring eventually drowns in forced whimsy. Louis (Paul Dano) is a meek Fitzgerald lover who imagines himself as a Nick Carraway-like protagonist, complete with grandiloquent narration. He dresses in ’20s-style suits and strives to conduct himself as a “young gentleman.” Except, that is, when he’s feeling inexplicably drawn to ladies’ delicates, and wishes he could look in the mirror and see a pretty girl gazing back. It’s Louis’ unfortunately timed discovery of a student’s bra that gets him fired, and once he arrives in New York, his exploration of his cross-dressing impulses seems to overshadow his desire to write a Great American Novel.

Louis’ Gatsby is Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a gray-haired and dirt-poor playwright who takes Louis in as his boarder. Henry repeatedly insists that they shouldn’t get to know each other too well, but they still discuss literature (Henry James is “unreadable”), women (who shouldn’t be educated, according to Henry, nor fornicated with in his apartment), and cars (Louis’ sentimental backstory involving his Pontiac Grand Ville is met with, “Well. I drive a Buick!”). Sex is a particularly touchy subject for Henry, who’s lost friends and other roommates because of his extreme ideas about fetishes and perversion, though he himself is employed as an “extra man,” or a more genteel gigolo. His clients tend toward the rich and the elderly, to ensure both chastity and maximum perks.

American Splendor collaborators Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini co-directed and wrote The Extra Man, and its first half is a delight, steeped in lofty, dryly witty conversations and elevated by Kline’s charming eccentric, who would be the star professor of any English department. Henry speaks highly of the opera but has devised a method of sneaking in; he winters in Florida but only with the permission of one of his wealthy mistresses. Dano’s Louis is soft-spoken and gentle, and not quite irritating despite his neurotic blinking and wallflower dialogue choices. But he’s saved by the character’s intelligence and inherent spine, deeply buried though it may be. When Louis starts taking baby steps toward transvestism, it’s aching, because even in this world he feels uncomfortable and newly convinced that he’s unlovable.

But then the film flies one freak flag too many. Henry becomes a crotchety jerk who’s clearly out to use people, a theme that hammers the viewer until the end: Katie Holmes, for instance, has a superficial and largely useless role as Louis’ co-worker at an environmental magazine who’s only nice to him when she’s about to ask a favor. Henry gets upset at Louis but then invites him on a trip to the ‘burbs, but really he just needs a ride. And Henry’s estranged friend and neighbor, Gershon (John C. Reilly), whom Henry first describes to Louis as a pal “who helps carry things,” is exactly that, a mechanic who helps Henry with his car and whatever other chores he can’t handle alone.

Gershon is initially a priceless sight gag, with Reilly tressed and bearded like Harry Potter’s Hagrid and occasionally seen glaring at Louis after he moves into the building. When he finally makes amends with Henry, though, it’s a disappointment—Reilly affects a high pitch for seemingly no other reason than to set up a single joke. (Henry’s voice is affected, too, but it fits his more well-rounded, smarter-than-though character and sharpens lines like, “I need alcohol and civilization!” when he injures himself on a beach.) Louis’ inner turmoil, meanwhile, doesn’t go anywhere that’s especially interesting; the story opts instead for cheerier ties to its loose ends. For all the film’s emphasis on higher education in academia and the School of Life, no one seems to learn much.

 

Cairo Time Directed by Ruba Nadda

Cairo Time is the anti-Sex and the City 2. Both take place in the Middle East and focus on relationships and fidelity. But whereas the ladies of SATC spent their vacation acting like offensive buffoons, Cairo Time’s female protagonist is quietly respectful. The second spin-off from the HBO series was garish and broad; writer/director Ruba Nadda’s drama is gracefully understated. That’s not to say that Cairo Time is much more successful, though—in fact, it’s so low-key that picking up on its plot, involving a just-short-of-physical affair, might be difficult without the aid of the synopsis.

Patricia Clarkson is Juliette, a wife of a U.N. diplomat who’s supposed to meet her husband in Cairo for a vacation. When he’s tied up in a messy and potentially dangerous situation in Gaza, however, she has little choice than to explore the region alone. Juliette’s husband has asked one of his former employees, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to pick her up at the airport and make sure she gets settled, but otherwise they have no plans to spend time together. At least until the happily independent Juliette starts wandering Cairo’s streets in her Western wear. Almost immediately, men start making advances toward her, following her, and even touching her to such an alarming degree that, at one point, she seeks refuge in a store.

And then she seeks refuge with Tareq. The retired security officer acts as if he’s happy to show her around, but he’s awfully prickly, too, challenging Juliette on everything from the term “Middle East” (“middle of what?”) to her daughter’s creative-writing degree (“How’s she going to make a living?”). They spend loooong days on Cairo’s noisy, chaotic streets, doing a whole lot of walking around and tea-drinking. When Juliette’s alone in her lavish hotel room, she sometimes speaks to her husband, with her end of the conversation amounting to variations of “Are you coming? How much longer until you come? You don’t know when you’re coming?” Sigh and repeat.

Watching Juliette’s time-killing gets pretty boring itself, and her building attraction to Tareq is hard to buy when he does little but criticize her and her American ways. (OK, so he’s sometimes charming, but not nearly often enough.) Clarkson is perhaps smart not to add too much to Juliette—besides mopping sweat and marveling at the sights—and her relatively informed and unerringly respectful tourist is an admirable if dull character. Clarkson’s big moments come toward the end of the film, when Juliette begins to realize that there’s another man she’d like to see the pyramids with. (Not entirely a euphemism.) But even the breadth of emotions that play across her face are too delicate to engage after a whole lot of nothing. At least the SATC women had each other to spark some lively—if inane—logorrhea.

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