The Discreet Charm of the American Bonehead
Mike Judge's Extract is better than Office Space.
After you've seen Extract, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion on Mike Judge's latest comedy:
The tag line for Extract (Miramax), the fourth feature film from Mike Judge, promises "a comedy with a flavor of its own." That's certainly true. Judge cultists will recognize the Beavis and Butt-Head auteur's signature blend of social satire, broad physical comedy, and lovingly observed middle-American stupidity. But Extract's particular flavor profile may strike some Judge-heads as overly sweet—it's the sunniest and least angry of his films—while viewers less disposed to love his work may find it simply bland. Personally, I found Extract to be Judge's best nonanimated work yet. For all of Office Space's comic invention, that movie had a hole at its center: Ron Livingston's protagonist was an uninteresting guy played by (sorry, Ron) an uninteresting actor. And though Idiocracy was brilliant at extrapolating current trends into a dystopic American future (one day, we will water our crops with sports drinks!), it ultimately fell victim to its own high concept.
Extract is more modest in its ambitions, a 98-minute goof with little more on its mind than cracking us up. After the past few years of comedies in the Apatow mold, it's refreshing to find a movie that doesn't combine that simple goal with a secondary agenda to gross us out (babies crowning! naked fat guys with flaccid penises!), or to make us cry, or to teach us life lessons. For all of Judge's comic absurdity, his universe is as familiar as an Arby's drive-through—I grew up in the suburb of a Southern city much like the unnamed town where Extract is set. The hotel-chain sports bars and pretentiously named subdivisions where the action unfolds are both cartoonish versions of American alienation and sociologically precise portraits of places we've all been.
Jason Bateman, whose specialty is the poker-faced reaction shot, was born to embody a classic Mike Judge protagonist: the sole sane inhabitant of a ridiculous world. Joel Reynold runs a successful flavoring-extract factory that he founded himself. (His story about a childhood revelation involving root-beer-flavored cookies tells us all we need to know about this character's dogged earnestness.) Joel loves his work, but he's sex-starved at home; his wife, Suzie (Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig), bored by her own career in supermarket-coupon design, cinches her sweatpants so tight as to discourage all ingress. So Joel spends nights drinking at the Sidelines sports bar, where the spaced-out bartender, Dean (Ben Affleck, resplendent in Jesus hair), dispenses drugs and terrible advice. One night, after accidentally ingesting a horse tranquilizer, Joel finds himself agreeing to a particularly ill-advised Dean scheme: He will pay a gigolo to seduce his wife, thus freeing himself to cheat in turn with Cindy (Mila Kunis), the sexy new temp at the factory. To Joel's dismay, the plan works so well that the gigolo, Brad (a transcendently vacant cretin played by Dustin Milligan), is soon having a full-blown affair with Joel's wife and trying to bill Joel for each assignation.
In the meantime, a terrible (yet slapstick-laden) accident at the factory has left a worker, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), with only one testicle. Step hires a shyster lawyer (played by KISS's Gene Simmons in an unforgettable wig) and threatens to sue the factory for millions. Step, in turn, becomes the prey of Cindy, who turns out to be a remorseless grifter with an eye on the potential settlement money.
Extract packs a lot of narrative into a small-scale movie—I haven't even mentioned Joel's maddening neighbor (David Koechner), who, in the film's best running gag, stops Joel's car on its way out the driveway and traps him in endless conversations. Though not every subplot gets resolved in a satisfying (or even logical) way, I admired Judge's attempt to structure comedy into the story, rather than following the sketch-comedy model of stopping the action short to insert a laugh-getting scene.
And his skill at capturing the vernacular of the American bonehead means that even minor characters, like Clifton Collins' one-balled factory worker or a tattooed "grindcore" enthusiast played by T.J. Miller, get at least one memorably funny scene. Like Judge's first two live-action films, Extract seems destined to do minor business at the box office but achieve a kind of immortality as a cult DVD, to be quoted from at parties and passed around to friends. Which may be just fine by its creator—as Beavis and Butt-head have taught us, snickering with your friends in front of the television is one of life's great joys.