In two previous films, writer/director Mike Judge had the courage to poke sacred cows with his sharp wit. In his latest film ‘Extract,’ Judge is just playing it safe
by WALLACE BAINE
In 2006, writer/director Mike Judge broke an entertainment industry taboo with his goofy but lacerating comedy “Idiocracy,” in which he suggested that each generation is getting more and more stupid and the future would belong to a race of feeble-minded dolts. Just about anything goes in Hollywood except calling your potential audience stupid and insinuating that mainstream entertainment is making them that way.
For his chutzpah, Judge essentially got the cold shoulder from the industry. “Idiocracy” was not picked up for distribution and had to find its fans on DVD.
In his first film since “Idiocracy,” Judge seems to have decided against taking up permanent residence in show-biz Siberia. His new comedy “Extract” is every bit as tame and prosaic as “Idiocracy” was cheeky and original.
The template here is not “Idiocracy” but “Office Space,” Judge’s hilarious 1999 film that was the first comedy classic of the DVD age. As in “Office Space,” Judge immerses us into the absurdity of the modern workplace . But “Extract” — opening Friday at the Del Mar — lacks exactly the kind of razor-sharp cutting humor that made “Office Space” an endearing treasure in so many DVD collections. By contrast, “Extract” does its comic work with a butter knife.
The film benefits from the casting of the marvelous Jason Bateman in the lead role, as Joel, the owner/operator of a small factory that makes vanilla extract and similar elixirs. Bateman is more or less reprising his role in the beloved cult TV series “Arrested Development” as an adult among children, something he knows how to do well.
Joel is close to selling his off his factory for millions when a bizarre accident maims one of his floor managers and a hottie con artist (Mila Kunis of “That ’70s Show”) gets herself hired on at the factory as a temp to convince the crippled man to sue for a seven-figure award.
Meanwhile, Joel is frustrated that his wife (Kristen Wiig) is not sexually available to him and falls for a lame-brained scheme put forth by his bartender buddy (a hairy Ben Affleck) to get her to cheat on him, so he can be free to philander in good conscience.
The film has all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from Mike Judge (who, we must also add, is the brainchild behind “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill”). It’s just that he too often overplays his hand. David Koechner plays the kind of annoying neighbor too thick-headed to pick up on the cues that he’s not very well-liked. But the joke gets old fast, despite Koechner’s best efforts to propel the guy into the pantheon that includes Lumbergh and Milton from “Office Space.”
The actors, in fact, all acquit themselves honorably and Affleck is especially appealing as the mellow stoner buddy trying to get Joel to loosen up. And get a load of former KISS icon Gene Simmons in his role as a blustery, ambulance-chasing lawyer.
But the real problem with “Extract” – that separates it from the instant classics “Office Space” and “Idiocracy” – is that nothing much is at stake here. In “Office Space,” Judge was applying a well-sharpened wit to the maddeningly irrational practices of corporate middle management. In “Idiocracy,” he was projecting that wit onto the very future of Western civilization. By contrast, “Extract” is a mild, sporadically humorous comedy about … well, nothing much, really.
If Judge made “Extract” as a kind of atonement for “Idiocracy” (just a guess), then we’re all the poorer for it. The world doesn’t particularly need another forgettable domestic comedy. It does need filmmakers and comedians willing to confront the crazy ironies and the uncomfortable truths behind the silly circus acts. For years, Mike Judge has been one of those artists. Let’s hope that one day he’ll find his way back there again.