In general, people are not all that ambitious. In general, life is filled with dull moments, surrounded by the occasional heart attack and/or sexual conquest. Dogs understand the comfort of this concept, which is why they seek constant routine in their lives and become uneasy if there’s even the slightest change in their daily habits. In general, people go to movies for an escape, some excitement, and a break from the drudgery involved in their every day lives. But not everyone believes that an intentionally unbelievable fantasy world is the best thing to endorse.
In particular, Mike Judge, who, with his films Office Space and Idiocracy, and his TV shows Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, has palpably explored the joy and frustrations within mediocrity, knows that reality, in the long run, is far more interesting than exploding spaceships and animated animals that make pop-culture references. Actually, anything is more interesting than animated animals that make pop-culture references, and luckily, Judge’s new film, Extract, uses only humans as their talking mammals of choice.
The result of Judge’s directness and honesty is what you’d expect, films that get buried and badly marketed because they can’t be pigeonholed into an obvious genre or summarized in a thirty-second TV ad. Characters in Judge’s films have to deal with the consequences of their actions; the deus ex machina is not likely to be around the corner, which will often surprise a viewer who expects standard formula. Judge has been burned by his gently satirical nature before, Office Space only had a life on video and DVD, Idiocracy was shelved and then re-edited and then shelved again, remaining unfinished, and released by Fox in only a few markets with no advertising behind it, and Extract, with Jason Bateman as a sexually frustrated, married, owner of an extract factory, who is aware that his problems are minor in the scheme of things, which is exactly what frustrates him, is marred by one of the worst and most misleading TV spots ever produced.
If you’d only seen the TV ad currently running, you’d think Extract was a rollicking comedy of sex and drugs (with Ben Affleck as a stoner! And Mila Kunis as the innocent object of lust!), all taking place over one wild night. The only truth in any of that sentence is that Ben Affleck’s character does smoke weed, but he’s a bartender with too much time on his hands and so he concocts overblown solutions to non-existent issues, all the while refusing to take responsibility for anything he says or does. Bateman plays Affleck’s friend, suffering in a sexless marriage with professional shrew Kristen Wiig and employees who are too self-centered to notice how good they have it. He’s also saddled with a realistically irritating next-door neighbor, perfectly played by David Koechner, who responds neither to passive-aggression nor flat out aggression.
These annoyances make up most of Extract (Kunis, one of Bateman’s temporary employees, is actually just a plot device to get the story going, her character is a sneaky thief who uses her looks to her advantage), but what Judge is really dealing with is his usual subject, the paranoia and indifference of class warfare. How do you keep your front lawn and your pool clean while trying not to look too elitist and well-off? How do you manage to be an assertive, effective, and well-liked boss without annoying the fringe employees who are too bored to avoid pointless drama? How do you appear non-confrontational and non-judgmental about everyone around you, while still managing to live an active life? Any reveal of emotion or preference is a potential landmine, such as when Bateman expresses his mild admiration for Kunis’ looks by saying “most of our temps look like winos.” Or when Bateman confronts Gene Simmons, looking like a wax museum version of a Universal Monster (probably the Wolf Man) and playing an ambulance-chasing lawyer, about the pointlessness of bankrupting his company to pay an employee for injuries.
Sure, Judge has not made a very ambitious film, and it’s unclear if Miramax has messed with Extract in the editing room (there are some glaring continuity errors) to try to make it more, in their minds, universal. But what could be more universal than an average man dealing every day with pushy, insensitive, insecure people, and who is so bored that he has to manufacture incidents in his life just to prove he’s still alive?