Mike Judge’s Extract is a strange and almost unnecessarily restrained examination of a man under stress. In it, Jason Bateman plays Joel, and he’s under a great deal of pressure. His work situation is difficult. He’s the boss and though he works hard for them, his employees regard him as the enemy. His personal life is little better. His wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has become frigid. Before he comes home every day she puts on a pair of sweat pants and pulls the drawstring extra tight, as if to say to the camera, this entry point is closed. Neither situation is to Joel’s satisfaction, but he’s unable to take responsibility for it. Instead all he can think of is escape.
Joel may be slowly going mad but on the outside he’s utter calm. As does everyone in the film, he speaks only in even tones, regardless of what he’s saying, and the expression on his face remains consistently blank or alternatively depressed and befuddled. Mike Judge’s characters at first glance, appear to be almost dead. It’s only when you look into their eyes that you’ll see something else. When Extract’s characters emote it’s only on the inside, their emotions burning deep inside their corneas like a caged beast desperate to get out. It never gets out.
Joel feels responsible and feeling responsible is killing him. He owns an extract factory, you know like the vanilla stuff used in baking, which he built from the ground up. It’s taken hard work, long hours, and now he’s a successful businessman with employees and a wife who has barely seen him in the past few years because, well, all he’s done is work. Those employees depend on him for their livelihood and for reasons he can’t fathom, hate him and treat him as if he’s some rich, corporate fat cat. Joel is anything but.
For Joel everything falls apart all at once. An accident at the plant costs one of his employees a testicle, and should there be a lawsuit, he’ll be ruined. The new girl, Cindy (Mila Kunis), is ridiculously hot and strangely interested in Joel’s vanilla flavoring. The audience knows she’s actually a con-woman, but Joel is clueless. Instead he obsesses over how best to manage the guilt that’s sure to follow should he cheat on his wife. His best friend Dean (Ben Affleck), a bar tender, drug dealer and occasional pimp, feeds him horse tranquilizers and suggests that he hire a prostitute to seduce his spouse, thus allowing him to cheat with Cindy (who may or may not be interested), guilt free. Joel agrees. Things go poorly. Everything goes poorly. Joel tries to cope and fails, repeatedly.
Like all of Mike Judge’s characters Joel is an average dude. He’s a working class stiff. Sure he’s the boss but he got to be the boss by working twice as hard as anyone else. He’s a blue collar guy who’s worked so hard that he’s made it, and now he’s suffering for it. Judge stays away from all the movie clichés of being successful in his script and keeps the whole thing grounded. This is the world from your boss’s point of view, and it feels authentic.
Joel’s marriage feels real too. Extract doesn’t work in a cute kid or invent some bizarre fembot wife. Joel and Suzie have been married for years, supported each other, and they don’t have kids. It’s not because she’s barren, they just don’t have them. That’s right, people can simply be married and childless. That’s something you’ll almost never see in any other Hollywood film, where a marriage without kids is a sure recipe for instant divorce. Joel and Suzie have problems, but children aren’t the problem. In fact it’s never mentioned. Instead one look into Wiig’s eyes and you’ll see what’s wrong. Wiig’s subtle performance makes everything clear without ever saying a word. Joel can’t figure out why his marriage has gone so horribly wrong, but Suzie leaves clues everywhere.
What’s missing is a little more outward passion. Extract is a movie about relationships, love, sex, betrayal, and all of that turned inside out. At some point someone needed to get angry, emote, laugh; hell, smile. Somewhere along the way one of these characters needed to unleash the beast inside, but that never really happens. The film stays flat, dispassionate. Even the most violent of threats is delivered as if the characters are reading soup labels. It’s even more of a problem because this is, at least in some way, supposed to be a comedy. There are funny moments but Judge has put his movie together in a way that underplays everything and as a result he rarely gets more than a chuckle. Even a scenario as bizarre as Joel hiring a male prostitute comes off as fairly, well, humdrum.
That kind of restraint has I guess, always been a hallmark of Judge’s films. His main characters are always pretty even keel. In Office Space, Peter rarely reacts to anything. At first it’s because he’s dead inside but later it’s simply because he doesn’t care. And in Idiocracy Joe is the epitome of average, a relaxed kind of dude who just sort of fits into any situation. That works in both movies because he surrounds those characters with insanity. In Idiocracy it’s a world that has, quite literally, gone entirely mad. In Office Space it’s the all too real world of corporate bullshit run amok. In Extract Joel lives in a world that’s every bit as flat and monotone as he is. Bringing in Mila Kunis to run a con was, perhaps, meant to give the film the jolt it needed. Instead Cindy feels like she’s wandered into the wrong movie. All the interesting parts of the film have been ironed out, the pleats have been pressed and it feels like you’re watching a particularly well constructed soap opera or worse, a Tyler Perry movie.
It’s hard to watch Extract and not think of Funny People. Mike Judge is kind of like the cult version of Apatow, and as Judd did earlier this year, he’s delivered something outside his comfort zone. Extract is less of a comedy than it should be, but not quite the drama it seems to want to be. In the past Judge has proven himself a master at poking a sharp stick into the cracks of our society, but this time he seems bogged down in drab relationships which don’t really fit his sensibilities. While there’s a lot to like in Extract, ultimately, for whatever reason, it feels like a movie that’s had all the fun deliberately sucked out of it.