Workingman's Blues #2
When director Mike Judge attended a Q&A following a sneak-preview of his latest film Extract (2009) at the American Cinematheque he began by saying, “I wanted to do something like Office Space, but in a factory and I wanted to tell it from the boss’ point of view….I’d never been in a situation where somebody was working for me and, after ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ suddenly happened, I had like thirty to ninety people working for me. And I was just like gosh, these people don’t appreciate anything - I can’t get a break here.” The reason I’m quoting Judge at length here is because, for better and for worse, his description of the focus of Extract is exactly that: Office Space (1999), set in a factory, and told from the point of view of the boss. While the film is quite hilarious, albeit a bit shaggy and awkward in parts, its main flaw is that it feels so terribly familiar.
The film begins when Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman), the owner of a factory specializing in food extracts, loses one of his best employees, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), to an incident best described as unintentional testicular assault. You see, much like the IT company in Office Space, the work force of Reynolds’s Extract is a far cry from their loving analogue on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977). There are personal animosities here, as potent as the vanilla extracts they bottle, and Step’s unfortunate near-neutering is the result of accidental chain-reaction that nearly takes down both Joel’s private and professional lives. As Step, who promises he will not sue the factory because “he doesn’t want something for nothin’,” is placed on medical leave, Joel and his assistant manager Brian (J.K. Simmons) hire a temp named Cindy (Mila Kunis). Little do they know, Cindy is a thief and a con woman who is attempting to seduce Step into suing the company so that she can run off with the money.
Cindy, to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld’s analysis, becomes the Woody Woodpecker of the film, the instigator. While she’s attempting to seduce Step into hiring sleazy attorney Joe Adler (KISS musician and rock legend Gene Simmons), she’s also stealing money from other employees and flirting with Joel to cover her tracks. The married Joel misinterprets Cindy’s devious flirting as being sincere and debates cheating on his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig). For Joel, the problem is that Suzie is rarely romantically intimate. As he confides in his best friend, bartender, and occasional drug dealer, Dean (Ben Affleck), “If I don’t get home before eight, she puts on the sweat pants and once the sweat pants are on, I get nothing.” Dean’s solution to Joel’s moral dilemma? Hire a male prostitute (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie. If Suzie cheats on Joel, he’s in the moral clear to run off with Cindy. As the film progresses, Cindy sets up the pins and Joel spends the rest of the film attempting to keep her from knocking them down.
The bulk of Extract is an undoubted success, particularly due to Judge’s writing, sense of comedic timing, and the ensemble cast he has assembled (which also features Anchorman’s David Koechner as an irritating neighbor). Bateman (“Arrested Development”) is, as usual, extremely funny, even if Joel’s character comes across as a Michael Bluth clone. J.K. Simmons (Burn After Reading), the go-to guy for an ignorant asshole role, does not disappoint in the area of his expertise. Clifton Collins Jr. (The Rules of Attraction), whose abilities are often neglectfully buried in third-tier characters, shines as a character, much like those on Judge’s soon-to-be cancelled “King of the Hill” (1997-2009), who is an affectionately drawn lower-middle class caricature. On the female side of the cast, Kristin Wiig (Adventureland), sadly, is not given much to do. Mila Kunis (“Family Guy”), an actress whose attraction I’ve never understood, is a bit weak.
Yet, the real surprise of the ensemble is Ben Affleck. When it came to picking between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on my post-Good Will Hunting (1997) career ballot, I’ve nearly always voted Damon. Yet, Affleck’s performance, which made me miss the actor’s presence by reminding me that he could, in fact, be intentionally funny, is the best in the film. There is a stoner scene in the movie that had all the trappings of being a dead spot, a stereotype taken from a cliché, yet it ends up being one of the best moments in the film. I can only describe it as follows: take the discomfort of the scene in which Bill Pullman meets Robert Blake in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and add an engulfing haze of cannabis. Judge’s script, Affleck’s facial expressions, and the occasional improvisation, make every moment Dean is on screen a treat. Perhaps the reason Affleck is so good here is that he’s essentially a role that a character actor would. He isn’t given the space to wear out his welcome as he would in a starring role.
I’ve already alluded to some of my criticisms of Extract throughout this review and I’ll fully address them at this point. Now, these criticisms are not difficult to surmise. Primarily, the film feels like Judge is trying to capture the Office Space lighting in a bottle twice. The shift in point-of-view and from IT company to blue-collar manufacturer does not change the fact that Extract is essentially another work place comedy. Moreover, Judge has already visited and revisited some of this territory during the past twelve-years with his superb animated sitcom “King of the Hill.” While I’m at a loss to cite specific moments in the film that felt stale, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been here before.
Secondly, Judge’s storytelling is awfully shaggy. Take, for instance, the subplot involving Suzie and the male prostitute. The way in which Judge relays the events to us, we are led to believe that the prostitute is an unreliable narrator. What could Suzie see in such a stupid kid? Her motivations, as we will later find out, serve the film’s comedy more so than her character, which I find weak and uncharacteristic of Judge’s writing. Also, as I mentioned in my description of the performances, Wiig is not given a lot to do here, which I found disappointing. Given that the film is as much about Joel’s private life as it is his professional life, we needed to see more of their relationship to contextualize the gravity of Joel’s moral dilemma. Finally, the character of Cindy leaves the film at a perfect moment, which Judge later undermines with an added montage during the end credits. While that may come across as a small sequence to take issue with, it fundamentally changes the viewer’s perception of Cindy in way that, while funny, is also cheap from a characterization standpoint. In the end, Extract, while incredibly entertaining and quite hilarious, is probably the weakest film Judge has produced up to this point. Now, that’s not as strong of a criticism as some might think, as I loved Office Space and Idiocracy (2006). Yet, to compare Extract to Judge’s first two films would be like comparing a chuck steak to a filet mignon; it’s not the best cut but it’s still steak.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.