by Cynthia Fuchs

4 September 2009

In Extract, Joel learns a frankly banal lesson with help from Cindy, who can't imagine holding down a real job and incarnates all that is ersatz.

Listening to the Universe

cover art


Director: Mike Judge
Cast: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck

(Miramax Films)
US theatrical: 4 Sep 2009 (Limited release)

Cindy (Mila Kunis) is hot. You know this because from the moment her perfect bosom appears on screen in Mike Judge’s new film, boys are slavering to be near her. Leaning over the counter in a guitar shop, she wonders aloud just how she’ll ever be able to select the right gift for her father, a jazz fan. The clerks—much like Beavis and Butt-head, in fact—fall all over themselves to suggest the right make and model, showing off their knowledge of fusion and rushing to the back room to find the most awesome color Gibson. Once they exit the scene, Cindy coolly picks up the instrument they’ve been showing her and walks easily—and so very hotly—out the front door.

Clearly, Cindy knows what she’s working with, both in terms of her own assets and her marks. The men who fall for her again and again in Extract are pitiful, yes, but also understandable. How could anyone resist such beauty, spilling from her tight top and turned magical in the California sunlight? “She’s my water when I need a drink,” croons George Jones on the soundtrack, “She’s the first thought in my mind each time I try to think.” Indeed.

A supreme object of desire, Cindy also has her own needs and wants, at least for the film’s first couple of minutes. Just so, her scheming leads her directly into the eyeline of Joel (Jason Bateman), self-made man and proud BMW owner, currently wondering what the heck his life is all about. The proprietor of an extract factory (products are orange, vanilla, almond, etc.), Joel is unhappy that his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has no interest in sex with him (and lots of investment in Dancing with the Stars). Yes, he spends long hours at the plant and most of his energy on promotion and staff oversight, not to mention the requisite devotion to his BlackBerry, but still… he wishes that he might come home one evening to find her sans sweatpants (the ritual by which she ties up the drawstring each night at 8pm, thereby closing down any possibility of the pants’ removal, is featured in more than one close-up). “We’re turning into one of those brother-sister couples,” Joel whimpers.

Feeling low and unfulfilled, Joel complains to his bartender friend Dean (Ben Affleck) that he can’t even masturbate in peace. “You need to take responsibility for yourself,” advises Dean. He has in mind a particular sort of “responsibility,” the sort that allows you to do what you want when you want, without regard for anyone else. “I work all the time,” moans Joel, “What does it get me?” Right, nods Dean. “You gotta listen to the universe.” It’s time to get… something.

This is where Cindy comes in. Spotting a newspaper item about an accident at Joel’s factory that has left a worker, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), with one testicle and likely a big payoff, she heads on over to apply for a job, hoping to engage in a romance with the impotent Step and bilk him of whatever money he might get from Joel (this with the help of an ambulance-chasing lawyer played by mighty-haired Gene Simmons). Here she wows Joel and his partner Brian (ever efficient J.K. Simmons), feigning interest in the science of extracting, and inspires Dean. After his version of gushing (“Most of your temps look like winos. And they’re guys!”), Dean decides Cindy’s the antidote for Joel’s malaise. When Joel raises the small matter of his wife, Dean figures they can get her to cheat on Joel, thus granting him the “morally appropriate” space to do as he pleases with Cindy.

For all Dean’s chatter about responsibility, the film’s serial misunderstandings and sexual antics are premised on Joel’s lack of responsibility, at least technically. Depressed and drugged by Dean, he agrees to hire a gigolo, another Beavis descendant, a dumbass pool boy named Brad (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie.

While Joel is horrified to find what he’s done while under the influence, his hiring of Brad helps to highlight Extract‘s most interesting aspect, its focus on work, specifically, relations between labor and management. Brad takes the faux pool boy job because he can’t keep a crap day job, and Joel’s dispirited longtime workers—stereotypical biddies plus an aspiring rockstar (he hands out fliers for one of his bands, God’s Cock)—spend their days suspecting a new Latino hire of theft and complaining about coworkers’ slowness. Step is the one worker who seems willing to make his way along the conventional ladder; prior to the accident (which Brian terms “this whole testicular episode”), he’s hoping to be promoted to shift manager. The fact that Joel mostly dismisses or misunderstands his workers’ concerns is of a piece with his missing communications from Suzie. His life lesson will involve learning to listen: becoming a better employer, he will also be a better husband, maybe even a better person.

This frankly banal lesson involves some metaphorical wrestling with Cindy, of course, who can’t imagine holding down a real job and incarnates all that is ersatz. Though Joel is initially excited by the fact that she is “working class-looking,” he must come to appreciate the finer points of ownership.



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