As the explody, franchise-licious summer wanes and awards-chasing fare creeps up on us, it is nice to know that movies like Extract still get made amidst our modern state of Hollywood sameness. Simple, funny and only lewd enough to make your grandma shudder, Mike Judge’s new film is a formulaic comedy for the set who think they are over formulaic comedy.
Jason Bateman, who in my opinion is often the saving grace of otherwise clunky films (see: Juno, The Kingdom, Hancock; one can only hope for C__ouples Retreat), plays Joel, a sexually frustrated owner of a flavor extract manufacturing plant. Having invented a better way to make concentrated flavors (the film’s eponymous extract), he has found a way to turn a decent enough profit to get a big house, a fast car and a big TV for his wife to watch while he wanks away in the bathroom. Seemingly idyllic, everything from the annoying neighbor to his nagging employees make Joel long for his bartending days, when life was simple.
Extract is billed as something of a follow-up to Mr. Judge’s eminently quotable 1999 Office Space, though a closer inspection reveals that it is the exact opposite. Interestingly, both films are particularly poignant for their respective decades. Office Space offered up laughs in many directions, but none so bittersweet as those that criticised our society’s move to what productivity gurus call “knowledge work”. This nefarious by-product of the Silicon Valley revolution brought us into a world of meetings, reports, networking and note-taking, all towards intangible ends. Take the character of Milton Waddams, who spends the better part of the film looking for his stapler; in a world in which you buy and sell nothing/knowledge, that physical object became a source of pride.
Our current economic situation has signaled a return to the tangible (for further reading, Matthew B. Crawford wrote an eloquent piece for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year stating as much) and so has Mike Judge. In Extract, our hero is an inventor whose product can be held, touched and put to use (albeit once vaporized). He is not Corporate America, he is Small Business America. Of course, when the suits at General Mills come calling with an offer to buy, he desires a piece of that corporate pie, but who wouldn’t? As the deal of his dreams falls into place, an accident and a panhandled lawsuit threaten to muck up the works, forming the overall conflict of the film.
Coming along for the ride are a milquetoast (but shapely) Mila Kunis, a comedically on-point Ben Affleck, and a surprising miss for Kristen Wiig. The actress side-steps her usual tone of restrained cynicism to fill the role of a quietly bitchy wife. In fairness, the script doesn’t offer her much in the way of character depth, but there is something missing. Still a comedian, she seems to be gravitating towards more legit acting fare; with some more time I’m sure she will make the jump. Surprisingly, Mr. Affleck crackles. As a barkeep/drug-pusher, every moment he is on screen is a moment to savor. Ms. Kunis, on the other hand, is just fine, and I mean that in both the physically affirmative and usefully indifferent sense. Any young thing could have filled her flip flops.
In many ways, _Extract _is a film about that oft told American dream. the idea that your personal ingenuity will raise you to the ranks of wealth and power. The catch here is that with those implied bits of happiness come a truckload of despair. The higher that Joel gets, the sadder his life becomes. There is a very clear lesson here, drawing on Mr. Judge’s penchant for classical plot conventions. (I should note that there is one evil little unresolved plot point that should leave a bad taste in your mouth). The laughs aren’t constant but they are consistent. What more do I need to ask for from a tight comedy such as this?