Mike Judge has a sense of humor that isn't as easy to bottle and sell as the "extract" in his latest film. Office Space, which is now generally accepted to be a work of comic genius (for those with an actual sense of humor), crashed and burned at the box office when first released, and Extract didn't do much better. It's not hard to see why. The films' ingredients are so low key that a theatrical trailer or 30-second TV spot simply cannot do it justice. A scene shown out of context seems flat and uninspired. So, the films are either forgotten, like Idiocracy (with help from its distributor), or find an audience on DVD and cable, like Office Space. Hopefully, this will be the case with Extract. While not as complete a success as Office Space, it is often quite brilliant.
Like Office Space, Extract deals with the daily grind and the war between labor and capital. Only this time our protagonist isn't the labor part of that equation. Joel (Jason Bateman) is the founder and owner of a small business that makes flavored extracts, a product that is apparently successful enough to interest General Mills. Extracts are boring. Joel knows this. In fact, he finds his entire life to be boring and increasingly meaningless. At work, he has to deal with an accident of Rube Goldberg complexity, ending with the slightly dim-witted Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) losing a testicle and being coerced to sue the company for damages. At home he has to run a gauntlet past his annoying, droning neighbor (David Koechner), who can't seem to grasp that Joel could care less about anything he has to say. To make matters worse, Joel has to race home every day before his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) "puts on the sweatpants," which is another way of just saying "No" to sex. This isn't some abstract euphemism; Suzie actually does put on sweatpants and pulls the strings tight like a chastity belt. To deal with his frustrations, Joel listens to terrible advice from his best friend Dean (Ben Affleck), whose solution to every problem involves a colored pill. Under the influence of just such a pill, Joel decides to hire gigolo Brad (Dustin Miligan) to seduce his wife, thus freeing him from any guilt he might feel about launching his own affair with cute new employee Cindy (Mila Kunis). Joel soon finds his life is less boring but not any better as he strives to find a way to put the pieces back together again.
Office Space and Exract are parallel films in many ways. Both have at their center the theme of man's love/hate affair with his job. He may despise his job, but it also defines him and provides at least some level of self respect. The character at the center of this existential dilemma is clearly the same man in both films. Both Peter (Ron Livingston) in Office Space and Joel are uptight white-collar guys in a pressure cooker of their own invention. Both have their inhibitions lifted by an outside force: hypnotism in Office Space and Dean's pill here. Both end up regretting the actions of their supposed "free will" on their path to inner peace. Throughout the film , Judge presents characters who find simple human dignity in work. Even Brad takes pride in his skills and wants to know if he can get recommendations for more work. As Step eventually realizes, if he sues the company and it shuts down, he'll be out of a job...and he likes having that job.
Judge's talent is in somehow making cartoonish archetypes seem believable. Close your eyes while watching and you might think you're sitting through an episode of King of the Hill. You can immediately hear the rhythm of the words and the tenor of the voices, each specific to a particular character. Much of the humor and characterization comes from the alternation of these sounds, perfectly timed, raised, and lowered. It is an animator's skill in understanding the power of vocal acting, and this film is cast with that in mind, straight down the line. From the soft calm of Jason Bateman's Joel, to the slyly flirtatious Mila Kunis, to J.K. Simmons' midwestern tones as right-hand man Brian (who cannot stop from calling every worker "dingus"), and finally to Gene Simmons of KISS, whose gravelly tones make attorney Joe Adler sound like the devil.
Now, although I spent the whole review talking about themes and other such nonsense, it should be noted that the film is very funny, and more than that, it's extremely likable. Judge has this Hawksian ability to make films about people just hanging out. There is a story, of course, but the real pleasure is just in hanging out with these characters and the actors playing them. It's charming.
Miramax's disappointing DVD comes with a bunch of random trailers and a standard 10-minute making-of featurette called "Mike Judge's Secret Recipe." The best part of that short piece is listening to Judge talk about his cast in terms of their visual and vocal quality. This is clearly the key to his particular style of comedy. Besides that, you get nada, nothing. The extended and deleted scenes features can be found on the Blu-Ray version, so if you have a Blu-Ray player you can check those out yourself. That's all folks!