Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
Mike Judge is an uneven filmmaker. It seems that with every film he makes, some of the elements hit and some of them miss. The hits always hit hard and leave an impression, but the misses leave you scratching your head wondering about character motivations, or, in the worst cases, why you should care at all. And, as with every Mike Judge movie, his latest film Extract is a series of hits and misses. There are laughs to be had, but muddy character motivations and odd script choices often get in the way of things, and the result is Judge’s weakest movie to date. But that’s not to say that Extract is a complete loss, as the cast alone makes this a movie worth watching. It’s just to say that if you’re looking for another Office Space or Idiocracy, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed.
Extract is the story of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of an extract plant, who is trying to work out a deal with General Mills to sell the plant and make a boatload of money. Unfortunately, his workers are incompetent, his wife (Kristen Wiig) is totally disinterested in him, and when an industrial accident leaves his floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) with only one testicle, an impending lawsuit threatens to disrupt all of Joel’s carefully laid plans. When a con artist (Mila Kunis) on her way through town spots a news story about the lawsuit, she sees the potential to scam her way into a lot of cash and not only weasels her way into one-balled Step’s life, but also nabs a job at the extract plant and begins to put the moves on Joel. After bemoaning his situation to his drug-nut friend and airport hotel bartender Dean (Ben Affleck), Dean manages to drug Joel and convince him to hire a gigolo to seduce his wife so that he can cheat on her with Cindy guilt-free. Of course, the whole plan goes awry when the extremely stupid gigolo falls in love with Joel’s wife, and just when things couldn’t get any worse, Step hires a scheister of a lawyer (Gene Simmons) to milk even more money out of the plant.
Mike Judge has a very specific talent, and that talent is in writing stupid characters. It’s a hard thing to describe, but Judge really has a bead on how people with lower-than-average IQs think, and the evidence can be seen in just about all of his work. Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Office Space, and Idiocracy all feature hilariously dumb characters, and so great is Judge’s talent in writing them that his best movie (in my opinion anyway), Idiocracy, is based entirely around the premise that literally everyone in the world is stupid except for the protagonist. The problem with this is that unless one of Judge’s movies is full to the brim with idiots, it isn’t nearly as funny as his movies that are. Such is the case with Extract. The dumbest characters are really funny, but you don’t really care about anyone else. The character of Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s neighbour, is hilariously funny because we’ve all met people like him who just won’t shut up and leave you alone no matter how clearly you tell them to. Ben Affleck’s Dean is one of the movie’s highlights because of how flat-out moronic his ideas are, but because he, like Nathan, only has a side role, it means that any time he’s not on screen, you end up feeling just a little bit bored. When all the comedy of your movie relies on your characters, it’s best to put the funniest ones front and center. Nobody really likes Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) in Office Space. They like Milton (Stephen Root) and Peter’s boss (Gary Cole). But at least in Office Space Peter’s boss and Milton work in the same place as Peter, so we get to see a lot of them. In Extract, neither Dean nor Nathan work anywhere near Peter, so we don’t get as much of them as we’d like, and that’s a shame. Dean does get a fair amount of screen time, though, so there’s that. Y’know, it’s not often that I name Ben Affleck as the highlight of a film. Huh.
I like Jason Bateman. I think he makes a great leading man, especially when his character is just trying to keep his sanity in the face of the problems piling up around him, as with his character Michael Bluth on Arrested Development. In Extract he’s playing a similar character, but the problem is that most of the troubles he’s facing are the result of his own bad decisions, and as such, I found myself unable to muster any sympathy for him. When he gets angry that his wife’s fling with the “pool boy” gigolo has turned into an ongoing tryst, I didn’t care in the slightest because he was the one who agreed to hire the gigolo in the first place. Then when he sleeps with Cindy, feels fine about it, and reconciles with his wife, I didn’t even know what I should be feeling towards the guy because he keeps making bad decisions, and yet comes out fine in the end anyway. Am I supposed to be happy that he and his wife both made the same bad decision and regretted it later? Am I even supposed to like them? Mixed messages, people.
The character of Cindy is a problem, too. We never get her backstory or find out why she’s scamming people. We’re introduced to her as she steals a guitar from a music store and pawns it for money, and she leaves the movie after sleeping with Joel and telling him that she’ll convince Step to drop the lawsuit. And that’s it. Joel wakes up and she’s gone. I feel like Cindy was Extract‘s biggest wasted opportunity, because I like Mila Kunis well enough, especially in comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and her character is basically the inciting incident of one of the movie’s bigger plotlines: the lawsuit that may cost the extract plant their deal with General Mills. I honestly wish I had more to say about her character, but we’re just not given any insight into her. And it’s a shame.
All of my complaints aside, Extract isn’t a bad movie. There are a few chuckle-worthy moments, and the cast is terrific. Jason Bateman, Clifton Collins Jr., J.K. Simmons, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Gene Simmons and especially Ben Affleck all give good performances. They’re convincing and quirky characters, and they’re fun to watch on screen. If only the script was a bit more polished – and maybe given one or two more drafts – this could have been a terrific comedy. Instead, it’s mediocre, but it isn’t a total loss. But really, I’d rather watch Idiocracy again instead of watching Extract a second time.
3 out of 5