Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009

Extract Some Humor

Mike Judge�s American Comedy

By David Luhrssen
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To all appearances, Joel is a successful entrepreneur whose American dream of developing his own line of food flavor extracts has come true. But at home, Joel (Jason Bateman) is a frustrated man. Once his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), dons her sweat pants, usually at 8 p.m. sharp, the door of sexual opportunity slams shut. In fact, they haven’t had sex for months, partly because of his crushing workload at the extract factory, but also because of a nerdy, chatterbox neighbor who intercepts him nightly on the driveway.

Joel’s misbegotten efforts at having an affair, and luring his wife into infidelity, is one avenue taken by Extract, the latest comedy by “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge (out now on DVD). The other route is an inversion of Judge’s 1999 comedy Office Space, whose protagonists were the cubicle drudges of a mismanaged workplace. In Extract, Judge is more or less on management’s side. Joel is the protagonist, staring down from his office window at a shop floor of dullards, including an imbecile grindcore musician, a narrow-eyed hillbilly and a pair of gossipy women. They complain about their jobs, screw up, backbite and complain some more about their jobs. Aside from the stoic Latinos who can’t understand a word around them, the employees of Reynolds Extract are as dim as a room lit by a single 20-watt bulb.

Enter Cindy (Mila Kunis), a manipulative beauty whose “help me, I’m a girl” act fogs the reason of men and enables her sociopathic life as a grifter. As a temp at Reynolds Extract, she plays on Joel’s insecure male vanity like a master musician. Given his wife’s loss of ardor, he’s easily hooked. “How often can I meet a girl that pretty who’s into food flavoring?” he asks.

Extract is a funny idea, several actually, executed with an almost grim scarcity of laugh-out-loud humor. Part of the problem is that the only consistently funny actor is Ben Affleck. In what may be a career high, he plays Joel’s bartender buddy, proffering sophistries on the meaning of life, recommending Xanax as a cure-all (“I take it for the common head cold”) and offering bad advice at all turns. Most of the other potentially amusing characters are played as thin caricatures.

Some critics have indicted Judge for misogyny, given the doubtful characteristics of Extract’s females. Misanthropy might be closer to the truth, given the stupidity of the movie’s males, for whom the penis wins against the brain and the heart in every contest. But while the filmmaking is frequently inert, the script a little patchy and the acting slack, it’s gotten hard to argue with Judge’s point. Listening to the recent ruckus on talk radio and in blogs about “death panels” for the elderly, “socialized medicine” for all and the “indoctrination” of children by Obama, one can only conclude that a substantial percentage of Americans are just as dumb as the denizens of Extract.

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