A few flavors shy of screwball
As social satire, ‘Extract’ is short on substance
Sometimes you’re willing to give a comedy the benefit of the doubt. If you laugh, that’s enough. But a good movie can connect that comedy to how we live in the world. Or it takes risks and demonstrates a real sensibility. Mike Judge usually gets most of the way there. His animated television shows - “Beavis and Butt-Head’’ and “King of the Hill’’ are two - found perverse comic life in Middle American monotony. Characters stagnated on the sofa in front of the television or yammered around a grill in somebody’s backyard. Those shows bespoke an America where the suburban normal absorbed the weird the way a paper towel accommodates a spill. Like the folks over at “The Simpsons,’’ Judge is a comedian who can find the poetic glories in stupidity.
You can feel him straining for both effects in “Extract,’’ a meandering, only fitfully funny live-action comedy with Jason Bateman as Joel, the owner of a flavor extract business. Joel exists in chronic frustration. His employees on the manufacturing floor are nincompoops whose incompetence manages to cost a worker named Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) one of his testicles. The company is on the verge of being sold to
Lately Joel’s been trying to get home before 8 p.m., the exact time his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), loses interest in sex with him. (She would rather watch “Dancing With the Stars.’’) There’s a possibility for relief with Cindy (Mila Kunis), a grifter with the pertness of a Maxim cover girl. She seduces her way into Joel’s company and Step’s life for his lawsuit money, her sloe eyes popping open when she reads about the accident in the paper. (The camera jerks ecstatically between jackpot phrases on the page - “million-dollar settlement’’ and “lost a testicle.’’) Joel wants to sleep with her but doesn’t feel he can unless he knows Suzie is cheating, too. So he hires a pretty, young dunce (Dustin Milligan, in a wonderful haze) to pretend to be their pool boy and bed her. To Joel’s astonishment, it works hilariously well.
“Extract’’ is the opposite of “Office Space,’’ Judge’s now-beloved film about a life spent toiling amid cubicles. In that movie, the bosses were morons. In this one, the morons are the drones. A movie that mocks their incompetence would have to draw clear archetypes or create recognizably human characters.
Unfortunately, Judge is just whacking at piñata-size sketches.
One reason the popularity of “Office Space’’ grows with time (it was released with no fanfare in 1999) is that more people enter the workforce and discover they too work for idiots. It takes a heartless, more eagle-eyed farceur to make a movie about the idiots who work for you. Like the hero in Judge’s previous movie, a monotonous concept piece called “Idiocracy,’’ Joel is usually the smartest man in the room. But he needs a foil. For a minute, it looks as if might be Cindy, but she turns into the cupcake you were afraid she’d be.
Nevertheless, there’s classic screwball comedy lurking in this material, a cynic’s recognition that the world runs crookedly. But the movie is logy and repetitive. If we see the ubiquitous utility player David Koechner once as Joel’s pathologically talkative neighbor, we see him a dozen times. And even a little of Gene Simmons’s sleazy ambulance-chaser is too much. The scenes clump together. Rather than escalate to a head, they shuffle sideways.
Bateman, at least, reaches a boil. He’s very good when both backed into obnoxiousness and required to play it straight. The look on his face after he takes a hit off a bong as big as a light saber is priceless. He looks like he might actually choke to death. That moment is a bit in a movie choking on bits - including a few good ones with Beth Grant as the battiest of all the worker bees, Ben Affleck as a bartender with a curly wig, and a dim J.K. Simmons with no wig at all. All we have here are bits, so many, in fact, that “Extract’’ feels more like a collection of crumbs.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on movies, go to www.boston .com/movienation.