Mike Judge can work a half-hour like few other writers, but he’s never quite made the leap to stories that can sustain themselves over the length of a feature film. Extract is no exception, but it’s a nice counterweight to the broad slapstick comedies that have ruled the box office this summer. Though it isn’t likely to achieve the cult status bestowed upon some of Judge’s previous works (Office Space, King of the Hill), it’s a mild, good-natured, and occasionally insightful movie that manages to succeed as often as it stumbles—which is quite a lot.
Jason Bateman stars as Joel Reynold, a mild-mannered executive struggling to balance a cooling marriage with long and increasingly dull hours at the cooking extract company that has made him moderately wealthy. A proposed General Mills buyout might be the answer to his problems, but calamity comes knocking when a Rube Goldbergian factory accident costs an employee at least half of his testicles. An insurance settlement might have made the problem go away, but Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) changes his mind about suing Reynold Extract when a seductive thief insinuates herself into the mix. Until now Cindy (Mila Kunis) has spent most of her time working small-time cons, but she just can’t resist the prospect of a man with no testicles and a million dollars. When she convinces Step to enlist the services of a sleazy high-profile lawyer (Gene Simmons), Joel’s life is thrown into chaos.
Step isn’t the only one getting questionable counsel. When Joel’s wife (Kristen Wiig) seems to lose interest in sleeping with him, the beleaguered CEO unloads his troubles on Dean, his pill-popping bartender pal (a nearly unrecognizable, and very funny, Ben Affleck). Like most of Judge’s characters, Joel excels at letting himself be talked into doing profoundly stupid things—in this case, hiring the world’s dumbest gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife, thereby theoretically allowing Joel to engage in a guilt-free affair. Is it even remotely surprising that everything goes horribly wrong?
With the exception of Joel, most of the characters are rendered in broad strokes that lack the offbeat complexity of the folks who populate much of Judge’s other work. He especially falters in his portrayal of the blue-collar workers who man the lines and drive the forklifts at Joel’s extract factory. The one-dimensional caricatures are occasionally funny but more often condescending. It’s a sour note that unfortunately mars much of the film.
Extract’s protagonist, though, is the casualty of no such myopia. Thanks in equal parts to Judge’s script and Bateman’s performance, Joel is likeable and sympathetic even at his worst. He’s a classic straight man; he doesn’t have it in him to concoct the elaborate ruses that threaten to be his undoing, but he isn’t above being sucked into them. The movie’s best moments and greatest pleasures come from watching Joel deal with what is at once his biggest asset and his most damning flaw: He’s just too nice for his own good. He’s not exactly a milquetoast, but he’s not far from it. If he’s ever going to straighten out the mess he’s made of things, he’ll have to overcome the aversion to conflict that sends him scurrying into his office, garage, or neighborhood bar any time an unpleasant confrontation seems imminent.
Extract is screwball comedy, Mike Judge-style. There are misunderstandings, convoluted schemes, and backfires aplenty. There just aren’t enough of them to keep things fresh for an hour and a half, and the proceedings eventually grow repetitive. Too many scenes play out in the bar where Joel and Dean concoct their really bad ideas; it’s a favorite motif for Judge (think King of the Hill’s alley), but the goings-on at Joel’s favorite watering hole just aren’t that interesting after the first few sessions. Things pick up considerably when Judge takes the action elsewhere, though, and Wiig is consistently compelling as Joel’s put-upon wife, Suzie.
Funny and smart at its best and mildly amusing even at its worst, Extract is full of Judge’s trademark wit and unexpected, bizarre sweetness. In his uneven but generally entertaining tale of a guy who tries to grow a spine without losing his heart, Judge has made his most mainstream feature film to date. It’s ultimately inconsequential, but it’s a charming diversion nonetheless.