After the comedic quality of his satires Office Space and (to a slightly lesser extent) the troubled 2006 film Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s fourth film, Extract, is something of a let-down. Less scathing than its predecessors, it does have its moments but ultimately it suffers from a dearth of laugh-out-loud lines and memorable characters. Writer / director Judge again enjoys himself by poking fun at the dim-witted, but it felt so vicious and sustained in Idiocracy that Extract‘s limper, less vitriolic attacks pale in comparison.
Given the problems Judge experienced in getting Idiocracy into cinemas, perhaps we should just be thankful that he hasn’t found himself at the top of a Hollywood-wide blacklist, and that he is still able to make films at all. Idiocracy was all set to be released into a standard number of theatres in 2006 but only opened in seven cities in the USA, and disappeared shortly thereafter. 20th Century Fox did nothing to promote the movie – no trailers, adverts or press kits were sent out – and it was reported that the studio suits were overly concerned about how the more scathing, withering depictions of corporations would play out with Fox and NewsCorp’s potential sponsors and business partners. After all, in the world of Idiocracy, a sci-fi comedy set 500 years in the future, you can order handjobs from Starbucks employees to go with your frappuccinos … and it’s difficult to imagine Starbucks liking that one.
Judge had built up a fanbase, though, and since its release on DVD Idiocracy has been enjoyed by many, but it’s no surprise that Extract was released by a different studio (Miramax). Jason Bateman stars as Joel Reynolds, the founder and owner of a small factory that produces flavouring extracts. His marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has become sex-free, his employees seem incapable of working together like adults and his best friend Dean (Ben Affleck) is in the habit of giving him terrible advice.
When a series of accidents occur at the factory one of Joel’s employees, Step (Clifton Collins Jr), ends up losing a testicle. As a result two people try to take advantage of Step’s condition: con-artist Cindy (Mila Kunis) and a shark lawyer named Joe Adler (played by Gene Simmons of Kiss, without make up and with tongue fortunately hidden). All of this threatens to derail an ongoing takeover of Joel’s company and also causes several of the plant’s workers to strike. Meanwhile Dean somehow manages to talk Joel into paying dumb gigolo Brad (Dustin Milligan) to sleep with his wife, so that Joel can then cheat on Suzie with a clear conscience. Naturally this scheme backfires.
Judge intended Extract to be a companion piece to Office Space, but it is more like an inferior sibling. The principal problem is the lack of clear target: where Office Space mercilessly ripped into cubicle culture and petty bureaucracy, the attempts to mine the factory floor for laughs fall flat. There are a couple of jokes at the expense of the blue collar fork-lift truck drivers, packers and line operators, but they’re not particularly clever, or original, and the characters are poorly-drawn stereotypes. Judge’s success in the past has partly been achieved by attacking stupidity in a clever, drole fashion, but here he resorts to unconvincing slapstick and weak white trash stereotyping, which simply doesn’t have the same effect. There are some wittier jokes regarding racism towards Mexican employees, but they quickly run out of steam.
Darts are also thrown at the USA’s claims culture, which you would think would be perfect as a target for Judge’s satire, but it feels like the lawyers and money-men of the film are let off the hook with nothing more than a few half-hearted jibes aimed at them. The lawsuit and takeover also feel secondary to the other strands of the plot that take place concerning Joel’s private life; Gene Simmons’s cameo as lawyer Adler falls flat, but that could well be because the character is completely underdeveloped, and while his bouffant hairdo might raise a laugh or two, none of his lines do.
Some of the jokes do work, thankfully. The best moments involve Joel’s use of the gigolo Brad to try and trick his wife into cheating: in true Judge style Brad has a low IQ, and is seemingly unable to follow simple instructions. To cap it all he ends up sleeping with Suzie over and over again, but Joel amusingly keeps on paying him each time, enraged by the idea of Brad sleeping with his wife for free.
Bateman is adequate as the nice guy factory owner, but no-one in the cast really stands out, and that perhaps is down to the lack of quality writing as much as anything else. Affleck’s Dean is a pothead barman with pseudo-spiritual leanings, coming across as a mix between The Dude in The Big Lebowski and Diedrich Bader’s best friend from Office Space, Lawrence, but is a pale imitation of both. In true wacky-friend-sidekick style he is supposed to provide many of the laughs, but Affleck appears to be holding back in his performance a little, and the character fades from memory as soon as the film ends. By the end of the film Affleck and Bateman only have Cheech and Chong-level stoner gags to work with, which is a real shame, especially as they seem to tackle them with little conviction.
Kunis is ostensibly the love interest for Joel, and she plays a smart thief, but it’s difficult to shake off the feeling the character has been written in to provide a spot of eye candy. Judge’s leading ladies tend to be given characters to work with that amount to little more than a middle-aged man’s fantasies, so it’s no real surprise that Cindy has been written that way, even though it is frustrating. Wiig is underused yet again (a phrase that is becoming overused, ironically). Best of the supporting bunch is Anchorman‘s David Koechner, playing an irritating neighbour who seems to constantly harangue Joel about one thing or another in the driveway of Joel’s house.
Extract is actually quite a light, watchable film, even if it can be summed up as a movie containing a handful of sub-plots meandering about in search of an actual main plot. Unfortunately, and more importantly, it is nowhere near as funny as Judge’s previous efforts, and this time round his attack on unintelligent people simply feels a little mean, rather than a necessary blast across the bows of dumbed-down culture or workplace foibles. Certain elements are in place that are ordinarily required to make a good comedy, but it’s lacking in focus, and could have done with being a touch more offensive, or bilious.
Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 92 Minutes
[On a slight tangent, this blog is one year old today. You can send all cake and other gladly-received donations to Popcorn Towers, London, England. I’m sure it’ll all get here OK. Thanks to everyone that drops in for a read, whether it’s often or not, and even if you regularly do so while sitting on the toilet. I don’t mind. Really, I’m not fussy – it’s all very much appreciated. Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed at least five or six of the several hundred thousand words that I’ve bashed out. If you’re interested this was my first post.]