A Film Directed and Written by Mike Judge
The new film from Mike Judge, from his own screenplay, is a sharp satire of American society that is softened by a compassionate attitude at the same time that it is cheapened by an unnecessary reliance on coarse, sophomoric humor. Judge, who is the creative force behind the television productions Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill has thankfully raised his sights above the childish sensibilities of his original audience, but perhaps not quite far enough.
Satire is a unique form of humor that doesn't mix well with other kinds of comedy. To be successful it requires establishing a particular view point and voice through which the foibles of character and absurdities of situations can be exposed indirectly. It requires a delicacy and restraint which haven't, in general been seen in Judge's previous work. Although he still doesn't quite seem to realize that when you insert a coarse, obvious gag in the middle of the build-up to a more subtle and incisive observation that depends for its humor on the audience engaging the material in a more cerebral way, you break the mood, he does show a much more thoughtful and careful touch than he has in the past.
Another problem is a lack of focus. One of the keys to satire is in centering around a specific narrative line or character. In Dr. Strangelove, for instance - one of the most effective satirical films ever made - it's the constant return to the unfolding of the "comedy of errors" of the run-up to the grand finale - each one building on or somehow relating to the others - that keeps expanding the comic effect.
Although the story unfolds in discrete episodes with different characters, they all refer back to the action in the War Room and the failures of communication, idiosyncrasies of character and absurd conventions of thought are revealed as being part of an increasingly chaotic, absurd, and blackly laughable socio-political context. By unmasking the serious pretensions to "patriotism," "preparedness" and "power" (to name just three) that unravel as the unhinged delusions of a society suffering from a profound cognitive dissonance, Kubrick was able to use a subtle ridicule to undermine such pretensions in the real world.
Judge seems to be moving in that direction, but his targets are scattered. He's definitely taking aim at consumerist society, at American men's preoccupation with sex, and at the general level of ignorance in the population and at the emptiness of the materialism of the American Dream But his scattershot approached will have to be disciplined if he hopes to produce something more lasting and compelling.
The story concerns American dreamer, Joel (Jason Bateman) who has parlayed his adolescent interest in cookie-flavoring into a successful small business making extracts for the food industry. His success has brought with it all the requisite trappings: the fancy foreign car, the sprawling house in the suburbs with a pool, the attractive, well-turned out wife. But it has also spawned some rather common side-effects: sexual frustration, lack of communication, disorientation.
The foil for his reflections on his condition is his successor as bartender at the dive where he worked before he started his business, a recreational-drug-use-addled, perpetual adolescent named Dean (Ben Affleck). It's a symptom of how disoriented Joel is that he actually considers Dean a font of useful advice - and of course the Dean-Joel relationship can also be seen in the context of the American struggle between our fixation with youth, "freedom" and drugs, and our need to mature, and accept our own maturation process.
Due to the sloppiness, willful incompetence and stupidity of some of Joel's employees, an accident occurs at the plant that causes a minor but spectacular injury to one of the workers, Step (Clifton Collins jr.). Step has no hard feelings about the accident, and just wants to put it behind him and get back to work. But Cindy (Mila Kunis), an itinerant grifter who uses her "feminine wiles" to ensnare and then fleece her victims, has come to town. She reads about Step's accident, sees the possibilities for a large lawsuit settlement and immediately begins a complicated con-game. She gets a job at the Extract Plant - partly by charming the sexually-frustrated Joel - engineers an "accidental" meeting with Step, to whom she also pretends to be attracted, and gets the ball rolling.
Complications include the tentative offer of a buy-out from a corporate giant of the food industry, worker agitation on the shop floor, an ill-founded scheme of Joel's, the involvement of ambulance-chasing lawyer Joe Adler (a stupefying cameo turn by Gene Simmons formerly of KISS), and more.
As I said, there's a certain lack of focus. But Judge the director does manage - somehow - to keep it all somewhat together. In spite of its deficiencies, the script gives the characters - particularly Joel - enough depth to engage interest.
Judge is working with some capable performers and he generates a context in which they can work together to good effect. The one exception, perhaps, is Affleck, who takes his against-type character a little too far over the top and starts to shade into slef-indulgence, mugging and parody. Jason Bateman, on the other hand, manages to make Joel as appealing as some of his life-choices are appalling. Taking the occasional excesses and lapses of Judge's script in stride, it is Bateman's performance more than anything that makes the film watchable.
Kristen Wiig, a Saturday Night Live regular trying to make a crossover into films, plays his wife, Suzie - thankfully without the mannerisms - that can be funny in sketch comedy but would surely be irritating on longer exposure - of the bits she does there. Despite being involved in a rather crude and unnecessary sub-plot involving infidelity with the "pool boy" she manages to make Judge's late appeal for sympathy for her character plausible.
Mila Kunis, who made her reputation in television situation comedy, does a good job as well, as the manipulative, selfish, but still somehow principled Cindy. She embodies the moral equivalent of Bette Middler's famous assertion that "I have standards. They may be low, but I have them." J.K Simmons as Joel's second-in-command, Brian, is a forceful presence as usual, but is underused. Interesting cameo performances are turned in by Clifton Collins Jr., as Step, and stand-up comedian TJ Miller, as Rory, the Goth/Heavy-Metal forklift operator.
The music - which leans heavily on the C&W influenced pop of Judge's Texas home, seems anomalously region-specific in the film's "geography of nowhere" settings of industrial park, suburban neighborhood and motel that could be "Anywhere, USA," but it's not invasive or overwhelming. The cinematography is workmanlike, but uninspired, clearly showing Judge's roots in animation and his lack of interest in the "filmed image" aspect of moviemaking. The sets and settings are suitably generic - as I said, this could be taking place anywhere in the US that doesn't have distinctive regional accents or particular scenic backdrops.
Partly because of the efforts of this accomplished cast, partly because Judge reins himself in from most of the excesses of the other parts of his career, and partly because he does have a sharp, satiric sense of humor, Extract is a reasonably entertaining movie - certainly more interesting and engaging than any of the summer's other "comedies." In addition, it has several very good comic moments that hint of the kind of Swiftian analysis that can make great satire both embarrassing and life-changing. If he commits himself to this more demanding and serious approach to humor and develops a feel for the visual aspects of what makes movies interesting to watch and how to integrate sound/images//narrative more smoothly and effectively, Judge may just become a filmmaker to watch.
That's my take on it. What's yours?