Posted on Friday, September 4th, 2009 by Russ Fischer
Mike Judge might have the least cluttered directorial style in popular American filmmaking. He’s so low-key and soft-spoken that it is easy to mistake his style for none at all. He does the heavy lifting on the script page and in casting. By the time the cameras are rolling, if things have gone as well as they did for Office Space, he’s just got to make sure everyone is in place, and things tend to work. It’s not flashy fireworks that make Office Space and now Extract memorable and quite funny, but a sense of uncomfortable familiarity.
For Extract, Judge reverses the comic hierarchy that defined Office Space. Instead of following the antics of disgruntled employees, he sympathizes with a quietly fraying boss. But as in the earlier comedy, this film warmly characterizes both sides of the labor argument, even when it casts those involved as morons and self-absorbed fools.
Joel (Jason Bateman) runs a plant that manufactures cooking flavor extracts. He deals with pointless labor squabbles at work and doesn’t get laid at home. The guy is going pale. Joel is on the verge of selling the plant and buying a life of leisure when a workplace accident threatens to put the brakes on the deal. Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) loses a testicle when a minor disagreement on the production floor turns into a major Rube Goldberg disaster. Soon Cindy the grifter (Mila Kunis) is sniffing around, hoping to parlay Step’s accident into a lawsuit payoff.
I don’t want to give away further details, but there’s quite a bit more plot. Judge manages the thick story with surprising ease, and doesn’t telegraph the result of every joke setup. But that’s because he isn’t setting up jokes, exactly. Judge excels at capturing, then slightly exaggerating realistic personas, and he doesn’t pull the sort of cheap misdirection and switcheroos that are typically the bread and butter of broad comedy.
Instead, he sets up a handful of characters and then lets them go, like a kid with a room full of roaming clockwork figurines. The movie isn’t exactly full of great surprises, but at a few key tipping points, you may well not know how it’s all going to shake out. Because this isn’t just a story of Joel’s sexual midlife crisis, but of all the things that can go wrong when we get lazy in the middle of life, there’s always a new angle to turn to: the well-meaning advice of a dopey best friend, the slack work ethic of employees, basic social interactions among adults who don’t actually like each other.
Judge gives equal time to almost everyone but Joel’s wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), leaving Wiig with little more than a few improvised-feeling quips. David Koechner is spot-on as Joel’s boring, omnipresent neighbor, and Dustin Milligan is surprisingly effective as the dumb, single-minded fool that Joel unwisely invites into his home. T.J. Miller and Beth Grant make the most of their small, potentially one-sided parts as workers on Joel’s manufacturing line. They’re each so dumb, but equally genuine and impossible to truly dislike.
There are surprises in the cast. Who expected Ben Affleck to be so oddly endearing as Joel’s stoner bartender buddy? Affleck steals scene after scene with great bits of timing and reaction moments. Has working in the director’s chair made him a much better actor, or, as his early appearance in Dazed & Confused might imply, should he simply have worked in comedy all along? And Gene Simmons of Kiss applies his reptilian persona to an ambulance-chasing lawyer who is so easy to hate you’ll actually relish that Gene basically seems to be playing himself.
Through moments with Affleck and Simmons Extract delivers some deep hilarity. Bateman and Collins are more quietly entertaining, and many of their scenes will get grins and accepting nods of recognizance more than great laughs. Judge only truly falters in trying to keep Cindy part of the proceedings. One of her interactions with Joel proves to be the point where he goes from genuine, normal fool to ‘movie’ fool. Cindy is given a send-off that is a lot more arch than the rest of the film, even if it is an audience-pleasing payoff.
Extract doesn’t have the simple appeal of Office Space, but it also doesn’t have a high-concept premise involving hypnotism. Judge’s early workplace comedy became well-known as a discovery, not as something that was hyped in advance. If anything will dilute Extract, it is the expectation that this could be Office Space 2. It’s a more ambitious film than that would be, however, and quite able to get laughs out of the seemingly mundane, moribund midlife crisis.
/Film rating: 7 out of 10