Review: 'Bored To Death' and 'The Extra Man' both highlight Jonathan Ames
It's odd to get to know an author as a character before you get to know their work, and even then, only through adaptation.
Jonathan Ames is someone I plan to read now that I've gotten a sense of what his voice and his personality is, and I hope I enjoy his prose as much as I've enjoyed these two very different projects, both of which are eccentric comedies energized by exceptional casts. I saw the first season of "Bored To Death" when HBO sent me the box-set of DVDs for the first year. I saw "The Extra Man" as a screener here at my house. And then I saw the first three episodes of the second season of "Bored To Death" when they were sent to my house as screeners. And I think I've liked each thing I've seen a little more, which is probably a good sign, but may full well be a coincidence, or just a case of me realizing I like someone's comic sensibility.
HBO deserves credit for giving a show like "Bored To Death" a shot. I'm sure the cast was the selling point for the network, but they've made two years now of this great crazy shaggy dog neo-mystery series in which Jonathan Ames is the main character, played by Jason Schwartzman. He's a writer, sort of like the real Jonathan Ames, but on the show, he's struggling after the publication of his first novel. He works for George Christopher (Ted Danson), publisher of a big New York magazine, and he's best friends with Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), a comics artist who is in a relationship with Leah (Heather Burns). Jonathan's trying to get over his relationship with Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), who left him because of his drinking and his smoking pot. Jonathan is feeling aimless and powerless in his life when he places an ad on Craigslist offering his services as a detective. When someone responds to his ad, it sets Jonathan off on a wild ride over the course of what has so far been 11 episodes that has been getting better and better, and for me, it's "The Gowanus Canal Has Gonorrhea," the third one of the new season, that pushes the show over the top and into a new and better place.
The individual mysteries are okay, and the guest stars are often quite good, with Kristen Wiig, Bebe Neuwirth, Parker Posey, Romany Malco, Patton Oswalt, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, Laila Robins, Jenny Slate, Sarah Vowell, and Todd Barry, just to name a few. And as interesting as the guest cast can be, it's the main trio that keeps the show humming along week after week. As unlikely a group as Schwartman, Danson, and Galifianakis are, they end up perfectly in tune as performers. Danson is a singular creation here, a shrewd publisher who seems to be getting more infantile the older he gets. He's a creature of whim, easily led, and he basically wants to do or have or smoke or eat whatever someone else is doing or has or smokes or eats. He's like a crow. By the end of the third new episode, Danson's performance turns the corner from really good to great, and I'm dying to see what they do with the rest of the season. They've set up a richer and more dimensional show moving forward, but one that looks like it will continue to depend on this wry, witty voice.
I think it's one of the best roles that Schwartzman's had since Max Fisher, and I think it fits him perfectly, playing to his strengths. What I love most about his Jonathan Ames is how he seems game for anything. He's so basically decent and curious about the world that he seems protected by this blissful innocence. Even his work as a detective is more an innate curiosity about other people than a job. It's odd to describe a pot-smoking hard-drinking character as "innocent," especially after seeing them in a threesome or done up in bondage gear, but that's something that seems to be true of both "Bored To Death" and "The Extra Man," which was co-written by Ames and based on his work.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini co-wrote and co-directed the film, and it's an extremely oddball little movie with Kevin Kline starring as Henry Harrison, a role that fits him as neatly as Schwartzman's role on "Bored" fits him. Harrison is an escort for older women, and he's deeply eccentric in his personal habits, as Louis Ives (Paul Dano) learns when he answers an ad that Harrison places looking for a roommate. Louis is a struggling writer fleeing personal disgrace, and "The Extra Man" serves as a very sly send-up of films about the struggling young writer finding his voice under the watchful eye of the perfect mentor. Harrison is anything but a mentor or a role model. The film is filled with other strange characters played by John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes, but it's the relationship of Louis and Henry that is most important, and it works in fits and starts. The film is a little frantic about how wacky it is, and that's what scared me at the start of "Bored To Death." The series has room to breathe where "The Extra Man" does not, and that seems to make the difference with the sort of material that Jonathan Ames writes.
Now that i'm a fan, I guess I should get around to reading his work.
"Bored To Death" returns to HBO for its second season on Sunday night.
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