By Jonathan Kiefer
The movies of the American workplace would be worse off without the skeptical empathy of writer-director Mike Judge. It's not that Judge is any kind of labor-relations expert, or even a cinematic genius. It's just that he knows what it's like to have to work for a living and how that knowledge might well be channeled into diverting entertainment.
Whereas his cult classic Office Space looked in on life among white-collar worker bees in the '90s, Judge's new film, Extract, is about being the boss of blue-collar rubes today.
It's not a pretty picture, but it is pretty funny.
Joel Reynold (Jason Bateman) is a mild-mannered man on the brink of personal and professional catastrophe. Joel owns a midsize flavor-extract factory in a midsize American city. He came by it honestly, we suspect, through enough hard work that his marriage has suffered. If Joel's not home by 8 pm on any given weeknight (and he's usually not), he'll have missed the sweatpants deadline. That's the moment in the evening when his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig), who works unfulfillingly as a coupon designer, slips into sweatpants and cinches up the waistband so tightly that she might as well be putting on a chastity belt.
Now, because the people who work for him tend to be idiots in need of frequent assistance and his numbskulled neighbor (David Koechner) tends to ambush him with inane conversation in the cul-de-sac, Joel just never seems to make the sweatpants deadline. That's why, as he so woefully puts it, "we're turning into one of those brother-sister couples." What's a sexually frustrated flavor magnate to do?
What Joel does is hires a flaky gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife. If Suzie takes the bait, Joel figures, it'll give him license to go after his hot new temp with impunity.
These facts may incline you to suppose that Joel isn't much more than a rube himself. But in the live-action Mike Judge movie continuum—a drolly drab universe of regular, decent-enough dudes who get so bogged down by lives of quiet desperation they go numb and act dumb—he's about average, actually.
Extract is about average too: not as exact as Office Space nor as creaky as Idiocracy. In the context of Judge's cartoons, the comedy is subtler than Beavis and Butt-Head but broader than King of the Hill. Which isn't to imply that Extract is too generic to be entertaining, but it is so easygoing that sometimes it can seem aloof.
What matters most, as always with Judge, is characterization. Here, it's as much a function of casting as of writing and direction, and all the actors—principals and supporting players alike—make their little bits of business go a long way.
And isn't that just how it is in most American companies nowadays? That Extract exaggerates should go without saying, but we say so anyway, perhaps to reassure ourselves.
Sure, there are flashier, more adventurous movies out there, but this one puts in an honest day's work.
By Jonathan Kiefer