While watching Mike Judge’s Extract, I found myself constantly amused, occasionally very amused and once very, very amused. A day away from it, I found I liked it considerably more—its humor and humanity stayed with me. Two days away and I like it even more. There’s something about it that kind of sneaks up on you. Perhaps it’s this quality that has propelled Judge’s other theatrical works (think Office Space (1999)) to find much larger audiences on DVD than they ever saw in theaters. That may well be the fate of Extract, as well—not in the least because once again a studio (in this case Miramax) has positioned a small film on too many screens at once.
Extract is unusual in the realm of modern comedy in that it’s about adults and aimed at adults without being anything but a comedy. It’s not a comedy/drama. It’s not a romantic comedy. It’s merely a comedy—and that is not a pejorative assessment. There’s nothing wrong with being just a comedy. Another thing it isn’t is a star vehicle. Not only is Extract more of an ensemble work, but it isn’t built around a name comic. While it’s true that Jason Bateman has name recognition and has done a good deal of credible work in recent years, he’s not someone on whom a movie has been built around. He tends to play a slightly bemused and often quietly amused regular guy. That’s more or less his function here: His character is the lone point of marginal normalcy in a world of less normal characters.
Bateman plays Joel, the owner of a successful company that manufactures extracts—vanilla, cherry, walnut, you name it. His employees are dubious at best. His second-in-command, Brian (J.K. Simmons), is a cynical gent who won’t bother to learn the employees’ names (everyone—except the resident “grindcore rocker” whom he calls “boy genius”—is relegated to being called “dinkus”). The rest of the workers aren’t much better, especially the casually xenophobic and completely sour Mary (Beth Grant, No Country for Old Men). It’s Mary’s penchant for stopping work when she thinks others aren’t holding up their end of the job that sets off the chain of events that propels one of the basic aspects of the plot. A series of small accidents—resulting from her causing a conveyor to back up—leads to a large accident in which wannabe floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) loses a testicle.
News of this event draws the attention of small-time crook Cindy (Mila Kunis), who envisions lawsuit money via a safe romance with the currently sexually inactive victim. Not that she draws the line at Step—or much of anyone or anything else. Once she lands a temp job at the extract plant, she’s more than happy to come on to Joel. And Joel—thanks to his sexually unaccommodating wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig)—is easy prey, or he would be if he didn’t feel guilty about cheating. But Joel has a cheerfully amoral, slightly drug-addled friend, Dean (Ben Affleck), who gets him high (more or less accidentally) on a horse tranquilizer and then talks Joel into securing a brainless gigolo, Brad (TV actor Dustin Milligan), to pose as the new pool boy and seduce wife Suzie. The fuzzy logic here is that this will allow Joel to cheat with a clear conscience.
That’s the basic setup, but it hardly conveys the complete feel of the movie and its roster of characters—especially Joel and Suzie’s unbelievably ghastly neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard), who is always lying in wait to foist his boring attentions on either of the couple. We’ve all known a Nathan—a basically well-intentioned boob who’s constantly inviting you to events you’d go out of your way to avoid and won’t take no for an answer.
And that actually is the secret to Extract—we’ve all known some variant on these characters. They smack of only slightly exaggerated versions of people we know—or even people we are—and Judge taps into that, making us laugh at them and at ourselves. Yet with rare exceptions (Nathan and Mary), they’re all observed with some degree of sympathy. Or, as in the cases of Cindy and the incredibly venal accident lawyer Joe Adler (Gene Simmons), he makes them so cheekily and transparently amoral that they’re hard to dislike.
In the end, Judge’s characters are almost the comedic equivalent of Jean Renoir’s characters in that they all “have their reasons”—however unconscious and ill-defined they may be. But more, Judge makes us realize that we put up with these people—and they put up with us—out of achieving a common sympathy of accepting others for what they are rather than what we’d like them to be. That’s a pretty heady accomplishment in a silly comedy format. Extract won’t be to every taste. It’s devoid of flatulence and penis jokes, and its barbs are too tempered with humanity to sting as strongly as they might. But for those who can settle into its particular vibe, it’s funny and rewarding. Rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use.