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With Extract, Mike Judge inverts his title, and dilutes the corrosive concentrate that informed his last feature, Idiocracy, in order to make an appealing comedy that nevertheless takes the same somewhat dystopian view of American civilization. Perhaps he is simply saying that American workers can do the job — as long as they're not asked to think. Either way, his satire is taut and refreshing, so that even the more familiar jokes — a four-foot-long bong, for example — remind us how much funnier this movie is than the addled entertainments of, say, Cheech & Chong.
It helps to have an appealing everyman, and, as the hero, Joel, Jason Bateman is perfect. An actor since his teens, Mr Bateman, at forty, retains his boyish good looks, but he wears them with a thoroughly middle-aged bewilderment, as if "How did this happen?" is his response to a glance in the mirror, or a survey of his life. Having parlayed a childhood interest into a profitable company that manufactures flavorings, Joel is beginning to wonder if there is more to life than the outward success that he has achieved. The only excitement on the horizon is the prospect of a buyout by General Mills.
But while Joel is everything that a chamber of commerce, or even the American Enterprise Institute, could hope for, his workers are either too petty or too inarticulate to be capable of thinking clearly. Their grievances and inadequacies combine to set off a Rube Goldberg engine of disaster that costs would-be floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr) half of his manhood, thereby exposing Reynolds Extract to a very expensive personal-injury law suit.
Joel is equally beleaguered at home, where his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), is so enervated by her career as a designer of discount coupons that she has no interest in sex. (Although Mr Judge does not explore the matter, it appears that Joel has no interest in making love.) Rather than work on his marriage, Joel takes the idiotic advice of his old bar buddy, Dean (Ben Affleck), and hires a "gigolo," Brad (Dustin Milligan), to seduce Suzie, thus clearing his conscience for putting the moves on Cindy (Mila Kunis), a hot new employee who is really a con artist. To give you some idea of how stupid Brad is, in Idiocracy he might be a Supreme Court Justice. His idea of "cleaning a pool" is to take a brush to the ornamental bull-nose tiles.
An even more maddening nuisance on the home front, if possible, than the persistent Brad (who falls in love with Suzie, and thinks that it's very big of himself not to charge for further gigolo sessions), is neighbor Nathan (David Koechner). Nathan is one of those Americans who labors under the delusion that a friendly manner excuses such other shortcomings as being a crashing bore and refusing to take "I'll think about it" for "No, thanks." The efficiency with which the screenplay connects Nathan's unbearable drawl with Suzie's damp libido is tied up in a beautiful bow when Suzie herself tells Nathan off, with poetically just results.
Mr Judge's excellent cast has clearly benefited from coherent direction: each of the actors contributes a beautifully harmonized performance. Beth Grant lends her iconic voice to the perpetually aggrieved line worker whose small-mindedness creates no end of fuss at Joel's factory. Mr Affleck, whose hair and beard make him look like Jesus's rakish younger brother, plays the legend-in-his-own-mind bartender as if this role had never been imagined before: he is as incapable of giving good advice as Lillian Hellman, according to Mary McCarthy, was of telling the truth. Ms Wiig, one of our great dramatic chameleons, sneaks in a Jennifer Aniston imitation that becomes, as such, almost distractingly fascinating. J K Simmons, playing Joel's right-hand-man, may have made "Dinkus" one of the key words of 2009. But one expects no less from such talented regulars. It is to Mr Judge's credit as a lion tamer that Gene Simmons's impersonation of a predatory personal injury lawyer hovers thrillingly at the edge of over-the-top. Listen for the former Kiss-meister's soft-spoken but menacing query, "Are you threatening me?"
It would be terminally unjust to sign off without praising the brief performances of Hal Sparks and Nick Thune as a couple of bedazzled guitar salesmen whose ultimate badge of coolness is the ability to play "fusion." Let's pray that these guys are never entrusted with selling really valuable merchandise. (September 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press