[3 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For Mike Judge, the world is divided into the fringe - and then everyone else. His movies don’t center around young urban professionals living angst-filled lives in the big city, or high powered businessmen transacting trepidation from their unsure international connections. No, for the man responsible for a couple of backward adolescent metal heads named Beavis and Butthead, the marginalized members of society offer a far more appealing source of inspiration. The working Joes, the suffering single mothers - these are the people he wants to party with. And in his latest live action film, Extract, that’s exactly what he does. Within the small Texas town where flavoring manufacturer Joel Reynolds has set up shop, an entire universe of karma, pro and con, is about to unravel - and Judge can’t wait to show us how it happens.
Things are not going well for our eager entrepreneur. He is married to a woman who uses sweatpants as a barrier toward sexual intimacy and his workers run the gamut from the socially awkward to the borderline retarded. One day, wannabe floor supervisor Step suffers a horrible accident that almost costs him his testicles. Simultaneously, Joel gets a buy-out offer from General Mills. The potential lawsuit turns the deal from certain to unsure. Still, our hero is convinced he can work things out. Into his life walks smoking hot temp Cindy. Seeing her as someone who sympathizes with his plight, Joel gets bartender buddy Dean to set up his wife with a gigolo. That way, when she cheats, he can be with Cindy blame free. What he doesn’t know, however, is that this new girl is a con artists, using Step to set up Joel for a huge multimillion dollar settlement.
In a year which has seen four men foul Las Vegas in ways only previous Sin City bachelor parties could ever dream of and stand-ups who substitute jokes about their manhood for true observational wit, Extract comes as quite a shock. Not because it out-filths The Hangover or out dicks Funny People. No, what’s really quite amazing about Judge’s fourth feature film is how character driven and situational it is. Unlike the current crop of comedies that set their sights on the scatological and then dive directly into the toilet, the man who made King of the Hill a long running hit for Fox deals in recognizable archetypes and authentic insights into humanity. Sure, his characters may be dumb, or disconnected, or just plain dense. Granted, the narrative only works if everyone, from Joel on down to Cindy, stays oblivious to what is clearly happening right before their eyes. But when sketching out the populace in such a sharp, satiric manner, things don’t have to be 100% realistic.
Extract is an excellent example of what the Coen Brothers do effortlessly - minus the movie history homages and sublime stylizations. It’s a microcosm comedy, small things blown up into universal truths. Judge clearly sympathizes with Joel, but he also understands Cindy’s motives, Step’s concerns, and the sleazy shyster lawyer who waltzes in to undermine the company. Within each set-up are little moments of genuineness, times when the farcical façade drops and the characters voice something that seems authentic and personally plausible. If that’s all there was to it, however, Extract would be dull. It would be schizophrenic without any real focus, a proposed comedy where the only thing that works is the random interpersonal epiphanies.
But as anyone who’s followed his career knows, Judge has a wicked sense of humor, albeit a sly, subtle, and very droll one. As in Office Space, and to some extent, Idiocracy, he locates the moments of undeniable wit and then works to build them into a plausible narrative thread. Take Step’s situation. Sure, there are plenty of ball jokes and references, but Extract is not obsessed with genitals. Instead, Judge uses the slapstick set-up to delve deeper into people’s personal lives and ambitions. There is a marvelous scene between Joel and his injured worker where it is made very clear what they both really want. It’s touching and tender, and doesn’t devolve into a series of literal crotch shots. It’s the same with every potential gross out gag in the film. From a pot smoking sequence between Joel and his buddy Dean, to the world’s dimmest male prostitute, Judge takes what could be over the top and moderates it, winningly.
His casting is also top notch. Jason Bateman is excellent as Joel, giving him enough melancholy to make us care, but never undermining his internal business acumen. He knows how to keep his company safe, even if his personal life is suffering. Ben Affleck is also very funny as Dean, Joel’s bartender buddy and occasional indirect drug connection. Long haired, blitzed out, and blessed with no real moral compass, he provides Extract with some of its wilder moments. As Step, Clifton Collins Jr. continues his rise to character actor prominence, doing backwater bumpkin with just enough common sense to avoid being a cliché. About the only underdeveloped role here is that of Mila Kunis’ Cindy. Sure, she looks good, and sets up several of the film’s biggest laughs (including the arrival of Gene Simmons in the role he was born to play - that of a conniving asshole lawyer), but we never get beyond the basics with her. So she uses her body and her brains to get what she wants - what’s the real story?
Judge is like that, however. He frequently opens doors he has no desire to walk through, giving up people, places, and particulars that may not have planned, pristine conclusions. He will take Joel’s relationship with his wife, complicated via a borderline brain dead paid paramour, and then let the consequences flow organically. On the other hand, he will use a seemingly ancillary character, a pest who offers his own unusual set of comic conventions every time he’s onscreen, and make him the catalyst to another highpoint in the story. Some will see Extract as nothing more than a bunch of idiots doing idiotic things without a rational rhyme or reason for their continuing cockeyed cluelessness. Sadly, such an opinion misses the much bigger picture. Mike Judge enjoys dealing with the marginal and the disenfranchised. It’s where he finds the most honesty - and hilarity. While it may only deliver it in small doses, Extract ends up satisfying in a very big way.