Monday, September 14, 2009

Mike Judge's EXTRACT

Originally published on In Review Online:

It is with bitter irony that Mike Judge’s most mediocre offering gets the widest release. The man who made ‘TPS report’ and ‘Ow! My balls!’ common household phrases took his ten-years-in-the-making cult status and turned in a dud. The cynical and often mean spirited social commentaries of Office Space and Idiocracy were dumped in favor of mainstream appeal with more acceptable forms of stereotyping and ridicule. Judge has gained notoriety for pulling no punches when it comes to criticizing herd-like mentality of corporate consumer America, and this is why his new by-the-numbers comedy Extract is such a disappointment—not because there are no laughs, but because the biting satire is almost completely gone.

Jason Bateman is Joel, a self-made man. From his humble beginnings as a geeky chemical engineer, Joel has relied on his intellect and common sense to build his business, Reynolds Extract, into a success. But flavor extract is not very sexy and running a manufacturing operation is not very exciting. Compounded by the fact that he cannot make it to his gated-community home in his BMW by the time his wife puts on her sweatpants like a chastity belt, Joel is feeling the mid-life blues. His solution? To wallow in his apathy by spending evenings in a hotel bar where his brother Dean (Ben Affleck) works. Over a night of whisky, Special K and soul searching, Dean convinces Joel that he needs to hire a gigolo to seduce his wife in order to alleviate his guilt for wanting to cheat on her.

Already, I was not on board for this film. Like Jerri Blank in Strangers With Candy, Mike Judge “goes with what he knows” and in this case it is the plight of the upper-middle class white guy. And while Office Space similarly asked us to identify with Peter, and Idiocracy with Joe, these characters were given a vivid context that allowed for more space than their reductive personas. These films don’t have a cult following because of their lead characters, but because of the bigger picture in which they exist. But Extract doesn’t offer much more than the unsympathetic Joel. Judge might be expanding his audience short term, but he is also alienating his fans.

Much mayhem ensues in the life of Joel including an unfortunate industrial accident at the extract factory leading to testicular loses and the arrival of a hot new temporary worker who has taken an unnatural interest in Joel. Despite the fact that we couldn’t give two rat’s tails about Joel’s heartwarming final revelations about his wife and his work, there are a half a dozen supporting roles that give the film an entertaining boost. Ben Affleck’s Dean is just one step away from Jeff Bridges’ The Dude and easily steals the show from Jason Bateman with only a quarter of the screen time. A content bartender, Dean is a workingman’s fixer who could get you just about anything you want without judgment or bias. In a nutshell, Dean is likeable. On the blue collar front at Reynolds Extract is crotchety line manager Mary, vibrantly played by Beth Grant, and heavy metal geek Rory who spends his time driving forklift and passing out flyers for his band, God’s Cock. Their believable characters represent two generations of entry-level warehouse employment who punch the clock for completely different reasons. And, in a stroke of brilliant casting, Gene Simmons (that’s right, The Demon) plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer whose “Idiocracy”-like advertisements exclaim “Sue! Sue! Sue!” He takes on the case of the poor sap who lost a portion of his manhood at Reynolds Extract, hoping to squeeze the company for all it’s got. Simmons’ acting leaves a lot to be desired, but his scenes merely rely on his amazing presence (and recognition) to be effective and funny.

However, there is little that can help propel Extract in a logical or entertaining direction. Even some of the small character skits operate as dead weight, bringing the film to an uninteresting halt. For every inspired caricature, there is an unoriginal exaggeration that we have either seen before in Judge’s films or a half dozen others. Brad the gigolo is so unbelievably stupid it’s hard to understand how he gets his pants on in the morning. Nathan the irrepressible neighbor is the guy who no one wants to talk to but talks to everyone ad nauseam. Brad is dumb for the sake of being dumb, and Nathan is irritating for the sake of being irritating. Both of these characters are cardboard cutouts and neither add an ounce of dimension to the film.

Mike Judge has formed a reconciliation with his own cynicism and Extract has an incongruous aura of encouragement in spite of its snarkiness. But the warm and fuzzy backslapping ending feels vacuous and disingenuous. The story is an afterthought and the satire is lukewarm. The latent displays of misogyny, racism and homophobia lack enough irony to be considered critiques, and as a result prove more abrasive than the overt tactics of Borat or Brüno. The few laughs Extract does garner fails to be a means to a worthwhile whole.

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