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 necessarily 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 entertainments. Whereas his cult favorite 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 midsized flavor-extract factory in a midsized 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 p.m. on any given weeknight, and he’s usually not, he’ll have missed the sweat-pant deadline. That’s the moment in the evening when Joel’s wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), who works unfulfillingly as a designer of coupons, slips into sweat pants 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 sweat-pant deadline. That’s why, as he so woefully puts it, “We’re turning into one of those brother-sister couples.” It’s why his manners are becoming less mild. So what’s a sexually frustrated flavor magnate to do?
Let’s hope that what Joel does is not what most of us would do. What Joel does is let his wastrel hotel-bartender friend Dean (Ben Affleck) dope him up with horse tranquilizer and talk him into hiring a flaky gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife. If Suzie takes the bait, they figure, it’ll give Joel license to go after Cindy (Mila Kunis), his hot new factory temp, with impunity.
Speaking of dubious plans, Joel also has been thinking about selling his company to General Mills and retiring early. For this he has full support from his second in command, Brian (J.K. Simmons), who can’t even be bothered to remember their employees’ names. But there are obstacles — like the fact of Cindy being a gold-digging con artist, who slyly encourages the hapless victim of an entirely preventable assembly-line accident to retain an aggressive personal-injury lawyer, played by Gene Simmons of Kiss.
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 getting so bogged down by lives of quiet desperation that they go numb and act dumb — he’s about average, actually.
Extract is about average too: not as timely and exact as Office Space, nor as creaky and imprudent as Judge’s Idiocracy. As a sketch-like trifle built from well observed details, it even splits the temperamental difference between 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. Without them, the movie’s ecology of inanity might not have enough power to propagate itself.
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 a honest day’s work.