Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Theaters: "Extract"

Mike Judge is rather a peculiar comic filmmaker; he comes from a background of animation (he created Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill) but his live-action films are notable not only for their flat, drab visuals, but for their less than animated style. He is fascinated by the banal lives of dull people, by the daily grind of clockwatchers and dregs and the stupid people who make them seem comparatively exciting. The Judge universe is filled with flavorless chain restaurants and depressing hotel sports bars and beige cubicles and gray assembly lines; even his sci-fi comedy, Idiocracy, imagined a future full of fast food restaurants and city-sized discount stores.

His new film, Extract, has been marketed as something of a follow-up to his 1998 cult hit Office Space, with one crucial difference: that film was about the drones battling management, while this new picture has, as its protagonist, the boss. Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Extract, a fairly successful small manufacturing company (their product, flavored extract, feels like a joke that never quite pays off). The business is on the verge of a profitable buyout from General Mills when an unfortunate workplace accident leaves would-be floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), well, somewhat less of a man. Step’s indecision about whether to pursue a buyout-killing lawsuit seems to occur right around the same time that the lovely Cindy (Mila Kunis) arrives as a new temp worker… which may not be a coincidence.

Joel’s life at home is about as messy as it is at work; he laments the dearth of sex with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and Cindy’s flirtations get him thinking affair, though he can’t pull the trigger out of guilt. His bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) comes up with a solution: hire a gigolo to seduce the wife, and then he can have guilt-free extracurricular intercourse. Joel ends up going along with it, mainly because of the horse tranquilizer.

You get the idea. For a movie light on plot, there’s an awful lot going on in Extract, which propels itself from scene to scene more out of good-natured curiosity than genuine comic momentum. It doesn’t have the kind of motor that a great comedy requires, but it’s got enough funny bits and inspired (if occasionally underdeveloped) concepts to more than sustain viewer interest. If it clatters around and feels a bit rudderless, it’s hard to get too picky about movie with this many engaging performances and clever observational humor.

Bateman, of the still-lamented Arrested Development, continues to reign supreme as one of the best re-actors in the business; he’s got plenty of funny lines (“Are we still looking into replacing her with a robot?”), but his biggest laughs are prompted by a furrowed brow or a simple “Yep.” Affleck is funny as hell (he’s never quite gotten his due as a genuinely gifted comic actor), avoiding most of the clich├ęs of the stoner buddy and still ably delivering the following defense of pot: “It’s not a drug, it’s a flower!”

Kunis, who showed heretofore unknown depths and charm in last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is mostly wasted in a role that doesn’t require much more than to look ridiculously hot (which, don’t get me wrong, she’s more than qualified for). But Wiig gets a couple of chances to shine, J.K. Simmons reaffirms his status as one of our most valuable utility players, and David Koechner’s dreary, monotonous neighbor is a running gag with a wonderfully unexpected punchline.

Extract arrives during a particularly solid year for mainstream studio comedy (in the wake of I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report, Funny People, Bruno, and The Hangover, among others), and it places towards the back of that pack. But it’s still a good time, and offers some terrific moments, even if they don’t quite accumulate to a coherent whole.

"Extract" is currently playing in wide release.

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