September 3, 2009

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Extract (R)
Jason Bateman deals with the hassles of running a business and the frustrations of middle-aged marriage in Extract, an uneven comedy from Mike Judge.

Beavis & Butthead, Office Space, Idiocracy, King of the Hill — Judge has a history of producing comedy that is sort of confounding. Office Space, which I saw and loved in theaters, did poorly until it became a DVD cult hit. Idiocracy was in theaters for all of five minutes but was like a diamond in the rough when I saw it on cable. King of the Hill has plugged away for a dozen years without half the attention that The Simpsons or South Park has received and yet watch any one episode and it will surprise you with how smart it is in addition to how much funnier it is than you remember. And then there’s Beavis & Butthead, for which I have a vast well of fondness. Something tells me Extract is bound for the same “funnier the second time you watch it” shelf in the video library.

Joel Reynold (Jason Bateman) is the owner of Reynold Extracts, a maker of vanilla extracts, almond, cherry, etc. He and his second in command, Brian (J.K. Simmons), stare at their complaining, disagreeable employees and hope that a possible buyout by General Mills is truly in their future. Brian calls the workers “dingus” and “boy genius” whereas Joel is just desperate to leave the office in time to get home before 8 p.m., at which point his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) puts on the sweatpants and turns off the porch light on any possible marital whoopee. Uninterested wife, hen-pecking employees, irritating neighbor (David Koechner) — the only place Joel can shake off these worries is at the local hotel bar where he’s served by Dean (Ben Affleck, clearly enjoying the comfortable slobbery behind facial hair and a long wig), a friend full of bad ideas. Most of them involve drugs, but when Joel meets Cindy (Mila Kunis), a hot new temp at the factory, Dean’s idea involves hiring a gigolo named Brad (Dustin Milligan, who is excellent as an attractive moron) to seduce Suzie. The “logic” being that if Suzie has an affair with Brad then Joel can feel free to have a guiltless affair with Cindy. But Cindy isn’t at Reynold Extracts by chance; her appearance corresponds with a rather spectacular accident and a plan to score big from a long con.

Extract is all over the place. Not surprisingly, it’s at its best when Bateman is at the center of the action. He isn’t quite Arrested Development’s put-upon Michael Bluth here, but he is frequently the reasonable man trying hard not to roll his eyes or shout obscenities while unreasonableness swirls around him. Wiig, probably the next big female star to come out of Saturday Night Live, also does a good job of reacting small to big craziness.

The problem is that these potential anchors for the movie are frequently crowded by gangs of jokesters — the Extracts employees, the wacky neighbor, Dean and his weird circle of friends, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), the employee who was involved in the accident. The deeper we get into the movie, the more all of these different ingredients start to muddy the overall flow of the story. Different amounts added at different times, perhaps? I’m not sure what’s needed to make all of these parts work, but as is the movie doesn’t quite bring us to the point where, as in Office Space, a variety of plots and characters can come together in one story.

I want to see Extract again, which isn’t a full-throated endorsement, more of a suspicion (and hope) that there’s more to the movie than I saw the first time. Some technical difficulties (a lack of sound for the opening scene, a volume level that left a lot of dialogue muffled by even light laughter from the audience) got in the way of really getting a full sense of the movie, as probably did my own expectations of what Judge would deliver. But there were enough little moments of humor (as well as another glimpse at Judge’s surprisingly sweet world view, particularly as it pertains to people’s relationship to work) to make me want to keep seeking out what this movie has to offer. B-

Rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use. Written and directed by Mike Judge, Extract is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films. The movie opens on Friday, Sept. 4.