by Brett Parker
Howard Hawks, one of the greatest of Hollywood auteurs, once made a John Wayne western called El Dorado that heavily resembled elements from his earlier masterwork, Rio Bravo. So similar were the two in plotting and characters, that the film could be considered an unofficial remake. Hawks never went into heavy detail about these similarities, simply stating “when you find out a thing that goes pretty well, you mine as well do it again.”
That seems to be what Mike Judge is doing with Extract, his latest comedy which bears a strong resemblance to his cult classic Office Space. Both films centered on frustrated working men who juggle the stresses of the everyday workplace while dealing with personal angst. Both films gave their hero a stoner best bud, a beautiful girl who inspires self-liberation, and a socially-awkward loser in their midst. Very rarely is the copy as strong as the original, as is certainly the case with Extract, but at least we get some decent laughs out of the deal.
The film centers on the life of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a food flavoring extract plant. Joel’s company is on the merge of a very lucrative merger when all personal and professional hell breaks loose. The floor manager of the company (Clifton Collins, JR.) loses his testacies in a factory accident and threatens the company with a lawsuit. Joel’s wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), has lost all physical interest in the marriage and constantly turns Joel down for sex. A beautiful con artist named Cindy (Mila Kunis) sets her sights on the factory and stirs up considerable trouble, especially enticing Joel with the idea of cheating on his wife. Plus always lingering is Joel’s relentlessly annoying neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner).Joel attempts to deal with all the storms in his life with hilariously clunky results. Joel would feel guilty about cheating on Suzie with Cindy unless she cheated first, leading him to hire a gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce her. He tries to deal with the injury lawsuit reasonably, but must deal with an intimidating and crazed attorney (Gene Simmons) in the process. Plus he inadvertently experiements with the drugs through the influence of his scruffy bartender buddy, Dane (Ben Affleck). Through all this, Joel considers the idea of courting Cindy, although her shady motives threaten to come out sooner or later.
Extract, like Office Space, also wants to be an observant dissection of a 9 to 5 world basked in Judge’s trademark comic idiocy. The difference this time is that Extract focuses on a character from management while Office Space concerned itself with a cubicle underling. It’s rather thoughtful that Judge uses his comedy to show us both sides of the work force, the only problem is that Extract isn’t as focused on its main idea as Office Space was. The plot is way too eager to run off into outside sitcom tangents that distract from the central business at hand. Luckily for this film, these tangents turn out to be very funny. When the film does in fact touch on the stresses of being in a management position, it can be rather observant and empathetic. Yet the film lacks a wholly solitude of significance, it holds together only in episodic spats of humor.
In the central role of Joel, Jason Bateman proves to be competent but not compelling. I don’t really think too highly of Bateman as a comic actor. He lacks considerable depth and comic charm. He gives one-note performances with minimal expressions. At one point in the film, Joel becomes zonked from horse tranquilizers, yet he acts no different from any other normal moment in the film. He seems afraid to push himself beyond limits of normalcy towards zany height of silliness, nor do we feel he’d be capable of doing so even if he had the courage. There’s rarely any juice in his characterizations. We value actors like Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, for example, because they aren’t afraid to revel in ridiculousness by throwing self-preservation straight into the fire.
The saving grace of the film lies in the supporting cast, who prove to be aces in subtle, observant comedy. Koechner nails every minute detail we’ve ever noticed about clueless and talkative suburbanites. Simmons makes us realize that intimidating creepiness can be hilarious in unexpected ways. A real discovery in this film is Matt Schulze (you may recall him from The Fast and the Furious) as Dane’s dealer who scores Joel some good weed. Schulze does a frantic and aggressive take on the stoner archetype that is utterly uproarious. He seems destined to be one of the most memorable stoners to ever grace the silver screen. The film’s best performance comes from Ben Affleck, who hides behind a scrubby beard and curls to prove that he has a strong gift for subtle humor. Most of the film’s funniest lines flow straight from his character, and Affleck nails his character’s slacker wisdom with a surprising conviction.
Office Space is a comedy that means so much to people not only for its big laughs but for its intelligible and harsh criticisms of the everyday workplace. Almost anyone who’s ever worked a Joe job in a cubicle saw this film as a bruising reservoir of hilarious truth. Extract wants to be the same kind of sympathetic haven for upper-management, but it gets sidetracked by too many loose comic scenarios. It holds up though, simply because we go to comedies for laughs and this one delivers them consistently. It’s a sillyy love letter to any boss whose ever had to deal with idiots, and if there’s one subject Mike Judge knows well, its idiocy.