Before long I will have completed viewing over 60 screeners for movies made in 2010 that I received as a member of NY Film Critics Online. Some I have written full reviews of (“Last Train Home”); others I plan to deal with in a “consumers guide” that will include brief commentaries on some very good films (“Hereafter”) as well as some that are dreadful.
Having seen one of the most dreadful last night—“The Extra Man”—I intend to deal with it in some length since it is about male prostitution after a fashion and lends itself to a comparison with “Hung”, a far more successful treatment of the same subject. Kevin Kline plays Henry Harrison, either an asexual man or a repressed homosexual—it is not articulated, who has a job as a “walker”. He escorts very old women, widowers most often, to social functions in the same manner that Jerry Zipkin accompanied Nancy Reagan.
While watching this mess of a film, a disappointment from the same team who made “American Splendor”, it occurred to me how it suffered in comparison to “Hung”, the HBO TV series that stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a Detroit high school baseball coach who turns to male prostitution to make ends meet. It reminded me that some of the best writing in popular culture today is done within television, and especially HBO.
“The Extra Man” is a typical Sundance type comedy, one in which the creators make the fatal mistake of thinking that eccentricity in and of itself is amusing. The other major character besides Henry Harrison is one Louis Ives who after losing a non-tenured college teaching job decides to move to New York to make it as a writer. Paul Dano, who gets my vote for the worst actor in Hollywood today, plays Ives. He was made for this role, a neurasthenic insecure young man who is a cross-dresser. As is with the case with Henry Harrison, his sexual orientation is not revealed as such although the indications would lead to that conclusion.
Dano is basically playing the same type of character he played in “Little Miss Sunshine”, a maladjusted post-adolescent trying to find himself. Eventually this entails becoming Harrison’s apprentice as an “extra man”.
As is with the case with “Little Miss Sunshine”, he is meant to be “funny” because he does weird things. There are several scenes in which he dresses in drag that are utterly bereft of the kind of sexual madcap energy that you found in “Some Like it Hot” or even “La Cage Aux Folles”. The audience is expected to laugh at him and feel sorry for him at the same time, a miscalculation on the part of screenwriters Robert Pulcini, who worked on “American Splendor” and Jonathan Ames, whose novel the film is based on.
Although I am about to give a ringing endorsement for HBO’s “Hung”, I have to qualify this by saying that Ames is the head writer for the network’s “”Bored to Death”. At the risk of making a cheap joke probably made by every reviewer who has ever endured this show, I was the one who was bored to death. Like “The Extra Man”, this is an exercise in whimsy that must have had the writers in stitches. Everyone else would have to wonder how such crap gets through the front door at HBO.
If you go to Ames’s website, you can get a flavor of his comic sensibility:
Introduction to Michael Wood’s Essay About the Mystery of Henry James’s Testicles
A long time ago, I heard a rumor that Henry James had injured his testicles. In my novel The Extra Man, I used this rumor in the following bit of dialogue between the characters Louis Ives and Henry Harrison (the first speaker is Louis; he is also the narrator):
“It’s really very strange that I’ll be moving to New York. It’s all because I was looking at the cover of Henry James’s Washington Square and I thought I should be in New York.”
“I can’t stand James!” Henry proclaimed. “He’s unreadable.”
“I know what you mean.” I was worried that I had said the wrong thing, but then I stood up for myself and James a little bit by saying, “But the earlier books are quite good, like Daisy Miller, or Washington Square.”
“Yes, that’s true, his style did change. I wonder why. He burned himself, you know. Sat on a stove and shriveled his testicles. That may account for the change in style.”
My reaction. One, it is not Henry James who is unreadable. Two, when it comes to comedy I’ll stick with Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, thank you very much.
“Hung” is one of the best things coming off the HBO assembly line since “The Sopranos”. More so than anything with the HBO imprint, it casts an unstinting view of the realities of America’s rust belt. Like nearby auto plants from an earlier period, the high school in “Hung” is rife with rumors about layoffs.
Ray Drecker has just gone through a divorce and now lives in the burnt-out shell of the house on a lake that he inherited from his parents. Doing the reconstruction himself, he sleeps in a pup tent on the water’s edge. He has twin children who are as familiar with rejection as him. His son is into Goth culture and sexually unresolved while the daughter is dealing with a weight problem. They could not be more unalike than Ray, who is a handsome and well-built stud of a man.
At a workshop on Becoming Successful, Ray runs into Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a contingent worker in a Detroit office who dreams of becoming a poet. After sleeping with Ray, who women find irresistible, Tanya suggests to him that they could Become Successful if they market his main asset, his large penis.
This leads to a fitfully successful business in which Tanya often finds herself trying to keep Ray Drecker half as ambitious as she is. He often fails to drive a hard bargain with the women he “dates” and is leery of her plans to market his goods on the Internet in Craigslist fashion.
Our friends at wsws.org, whose cultural reviews puts their strictly political analyses to shame, had this to say about the show:
Hung is an exploration, through the distorted lens of television, of how far people will go when driven by circumstances to take desperate measures.
The production and marketing of a series such as Hung is a complex business, requiring a combination of ingredients, including humor, an element of impiety, as well as some social insight and a considerable degree of talent. It is no secret that television is a ruthlessly competitive enterprise driven by and with large fortunes at stake.
Hung plays heavily, and valuably, on its viewers’ sense of the uncertainty and instability of life in this era. It can’t be accidental that the industrially, socially devastated city of Detroit is the backdrop for the story. Lipkin’s characters struggle along in the suburbs, largely unconscious of the bigger picture, most of them shallow and self-centered. To what extent the program is criticizing their self-involvement remains somewhat ambiguous.
There’s not much I can add to this except to say that Season One is now available from Netflix and well worth watching.