“The latest film from the director of Office Space and Idiocracy” should carry some kind of cachet, shouldn’t it? Box office juggernauts they may not have been, but they’ve cemented themselves as cult favourites on DVD and seen Mike Judge become a mini genre of his own in the last decade, examining the frustrations of modern life with an eye for detail that’s as funny as it is piercing. All of which seems at odds with Extract‘s predicament. It is, at the time of writing, without a UK release date, meaning the best bet many will have of catching the film will be via the American DVD release.
It’s been and gone in cinemas across the U.S., taking a far from earth-shattering $10m, and received a mixed response from the American press. Dan Zak (what a great name) from The Washington Postcalled it “the most disappointing American comedy in over a decade”. Which suggests either he pitched his expectations a little too high for what was always going to be a knockabout comedy rather than an Avatar style game changer, or he’s not seen many American comedies that have come out in the last year, let alone decade; The Goods, I Love You Beth Cooper, Dance Flick, are all pretty disappointing if you go into them expecting to laugh more than once. What’s Dan been watching in the last ten years?
Extract is funny. Frequently laugh out loud so. But that over-reaction from Dan Zak, as extreme as it is, lies at the heart of Extract‘s problem – the burden of expectation. After the high of Office Space and the infamy of Idiocracy‘s too-cool-for-school potshots at Fox that saw it buried by the studio and achieve must-see status, Extract has a lot to live up to. And to be honest, it struggles to do that to the extent many will be hoping.
Not that being less funny than Office Space is anything to be ashamed of. Judge’s 1999 comedy masterpiece touched a nerve – that so many of us spend so much of our waking life doing something that slowly drives us mad – in a way few films had before or have since. In its corner, Extract is funnier than Idiocracy, but by mining the same ennui as Office Space – work can kinda suck, people can be really annoying – it feels less fresh.
At first glance, Extract simply swaps the office for the manufacturing floor. Jason Bateman’s Joel owns his own extract company, manufacturing extract of almond and various flavourings, populated by people you wouldn’t want to spend much time with. And he doesn’t seem to like his life. He has a wife (Kristen Wiig) more interested in her job of creating shopping vouchers than having sex, a neighbour (a hilariously bookish David Koechner) he can’t stand, and a business he can’t wait to sell and leave behind. Then Cindy (Mila Kunis, who looks nice but doesn’t have much to work with) walks into his life, and Joel’s infatuation with her becomes the film’s driving force.
There are other things at work here beyond the usual Judge-isms, however, most notably a look at middle age crisis and the inability to see what’s good in your life until it’s almost taken away from you. There are also touches of mean-spiritedness mixed in that sit uneasily with the film’s otherwise light-hearted tone. Kunis’s Cindy, a thief and fraudster who doesn’t seem driven by much motive other than to steal or defraud for the sake of it, offers little in the way of comic relief, while the film’s main sub plot of Joel’s wife and a gigolo hired to tempt her into an affair leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Thankfully, Extract compensates for these occasional lapses with a series of great comedy moments and a roster of very funny supporting characters. Sure, many of them aren’t all that original, but as Judge has proved in the past, great comedy often comes from the most recognisable of places and people. Even if those places and people are from the Judge universe: Dustin Milligan’s dim-witted gigolo slash pool cleaner Brad, hired by Joel to test his wife’s monogamy, proves there’s still plenty of comic mileage in the Beavis And Butthead style airhead; Ben Affleck’s bartender Dean, meanwhile, feels a pretty close substitute for Deidrich Bader’s Lawrence from Office Space, albeit more dependent on drugs and gigolo commissions.
Judge also throws in a number of set pieces which verge on the over-familiar – a 70s porn spoof, a weed-induced freak out – but are executed so well that you can’t help but love them. A Gene Simmons cameo adds to the general circus feel of the film, where it seems anything will go, yet somehow Judge manages to make it all work.
He’s helped no end by Bateman. Having spent the last few years playing a near endless stream of supporting roles, he’s centre stage here and the film trades on his immense likeability to great effect. Watching Joel try to survive the comedic obstacles hurled his way, not least the Kiss front man challenging him to trap his testicles in a door, is all the funnier with Bateman’s laidback charm at the fore.
It’s his performance that earns Extract an extra star and takes it from being a good comedy to a very funny one. And while it may not scale the heights of Mike Judge’s other work-based comedy, it’s funnier than most comedies that have come out this year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to send a copy of Evan Almighty air mail to The Washington Post.