What I like most about Mike Judge as a filmmaker is on full display in “Extract,” his latest workplace comedy. Judge isn’t the sort of comic writer or director who cares about the grand gesture, the big set piece, or the precisely phrased banter… no, Judge is more about the loose, the casual, the off-hand. He makes movies where the big laughs come from the small details, and that’s exactly the way I like it. It helps that he’s got a great cast this time, and even if there’s a sort of shaggy quality to the storytelling, it’s part of the charm.
Jason Bateman anchors the film as Joel Reynold, the founder and owner of a company that manufactures food extracts, nd his misery is what sets the entire thing into motion. Joel’s not happy with his marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and he’s started looking for a buyer to take the company off his hands. In general, he’s feeling blocked, and he’s not sure what he’s got to do to get back to normal.
He asks his friend Dean (Ben Affleck) for advice, and although Dean’s a bartender which should make his advice automatically awesome, Dean is also a Herculean drug user, and his adventures in chemistry have made him less than intellectually reliable. He gives Joel advice, but it’s awful advice, starting with the idea of hiring a male prostitute named Brad (Dustin Milligan) to see if Suzie’s being unfaithful to him. This is a point of particular concern to Joel since the hiring of Cindy (Mila Kunis) as a temp at the factory. She’s got an agenda of her own that Joel doesn’t know about, which makes his infatuation even worse for him. He has no idea how intentionally that bait is being dangled, or why. He’s distracted in part because of an accident at the plant involving Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of his factory workers. That accident could stop a buy-out from happening, and worse than that, it could lead to the closing of the plant altogether if Joel’s not careful.
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Laid out like that, “Extract” sounds kind of plot-heavy, but that’s just not the case. The film is far more concerned with behavior than it is with tying all those narrative threads off in neat little bundles. That’s good news if you like the actors and the characters, because all of them are given room to really hone and explore the characters they’re playing. That gives several of them room to really shine. Bateman has gotten better and better in the last few years, and he can take even the simplest line or the most ridiculous premise and ground it in emotional reality. He’s playing a guy here who is flirting with the idea of a total breakdown, and he makes it honest instead of absurd. His attraction to Cindy is understandable since Mila Kunis has become one of the most appealing comic leads in her age group. She’s casually charming, sexy but not in a way where you get the feeling she’s trying. It’s more about how comfortable she is in her own skin. Her character is a con artist, and if there’s any grand narrative flaw, it’s the way her arc plays out. Judge is good at character, but the best con artist movies also have to have a bit of the mousetrap in the way they’re constructed. That just doesn’t seem to be what interests Judge, though, so instead, he dispatches her storyline with a few perfunctory scenes, especially towards the end.
Probably the best-served of the performers is Dustin Milligan, oddly enough. He’s the dim-witted gigolo who Bateman hires to go sleep with his wife, and he ends up becoming genuinely infatuated with her as a result. Between his constantly asking Bateman for a recommendation for more work and his casual emasculation of Bateman in every scene, Milligan really nails his role. In a smaller but equally well-written part, David Koechner plays a neighbor to Bateman who feels sort of like a cousin to the character Stephen Root played in “Office Space,” one of Judge’s patented single-minded nerds, an annoyance by virtue of his basic personality. I love the way his storyline plays out, too. Affleck’s character is in the enviable position of having nothing to do with the main storyline, which means he gets to come in and just nail one great comic riff after another, and Affleck eats up the opportunity with visible delight. Well done on all fronts.
Overall, “Extract” isn’t the sort of film you’ll rant and rave about, but none of Judge’s movies inspire that sort of mania. Instead, it’s just a well-realized minor-key pleasure. There’s one scene in particular that is just about note-perfect involving a pot dealer, a phone number, and a terrible, terrible misunderstanding, but overall, it’s a lot of lovely smaller moments that linger.
I eagerly await the next film from Mike Judge. He’s earned it.
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