The Funny Business of 'Extract'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I procrastinated before writing this review of Mike Judge's new comedy "Extract," set in and around a somewhere-in-America artificial-flavors plant owned and operated by Jason Bateman's harried, married everyman. I didn't procrastinate because I didn't like "Extract," (I did) or because it wasn't funny (it's hysterically funny) or because it hadn't given me anything to think about (it did, and far more than the blows-to-the-balls and blowing-from-the-bong trailer would suggest). I procrastinated because that's the American way, and one of the hidden pleasures of "Extract" is how it gets that, how under the laughs it's a movie with a message for our troubled times: When things are not going well, in your workplace or marriage, you may be tempted to give up and goof off, but eventually you're going to have to quit shirking and start working to try to turn things around.
Bateman founded his company with his own formulas, growing the business to the point where his staff is making him a little crazy. His marriage is in that hell of complacency where it seems his wife Kristen Wiig would rather watch "Dancing With the Stars" than make love or, worse, have sex. As he laments, "If I don't get home before 8, she puts on the sweatpants, and it's all over," -- and later, when we see those dreaded, chaste sweatpants, Judge lays on sound effects and orchestra stings with zeal. The lack of consortium isn't Bateman's only problem; he's gotten an offer to buy the business, but a sudden industrial accident (shot with the care and caution of the "magic bullet" sequence in "JFK") leaves Clifton Collins short one gonad and puts the possible sale under a cloud of possible future litigation. Meanwhile, sexy grifter Mila Kunis has come to town to find Collins and seduce him into suing so she can get in on his payday, even taking a job at the plant, where she catches Bateman's eye and lingers in other places.
After being slipped some drinks and pills by his bartender pal Ben Affleck (shaggy, loose and funny, liberated from the burden of carrying a film and free to relax a little), Bateman has a stroke of stupid: Hire a gigolo, dimwitted Dustin Milligan, to seduce his wife so that he can then fool around on her without compunction. This is an idiotic plan. Even Bateman realizes this when sober. Too bad that's too late. ... And it's credit to Bateman's everyman person and exceptional comedic skill that he keeps us liking him through all of this and the later contortions of the plot as his character twists and hangs on the hook he's made for himself.
Judge also has a great sense of humor, and he knows how to not simply tell a joke but calibrate the notes of it to build and swell like a symphony. A sequence where Affleck's stoner pal Matt Schulze talks Bateman through how to use a water bong with the intensity of Charlton Heston giving Karen Black over-the-radio instructions in how to land a crippled airplane in "Airport 1975" is not only funny, but it builds to a great comedic payoff and a solid dramatic one at the same time. All the supporting cast members are great, from Collins' wounded worker to Wiig's unhappy but not unsympathetic housewife to Milligan's puppy-eyed work as the funniest male prostitute since Fred Garvin. Other standouts include J.K. Simmons' irritable foreman who hates his underlings (Infuriated by Beth Grant's passive-aggressive plant worker, Simmons asks Bateman, "Are we still looking into replacing her with a robot?") and David Koechner's wheedling, time-wasting neighbor who drives Bateman mad.
There are problems in "Extract," to be sure: Judge is hardly a gifted visual stylist as a director, and with two exceptions (the aforementioned bolt-to-the-ball sequence and an imagined liaison between Wiig and Milligan seen with the hazy halo of '70s porn), the movie's shot in a fairly static, "these are the jokes, folks" style. And yes, it's worth nothing that the animated Peggy Hill is still Judge's most three-dimensional female character, but Kunis makes up for it with the avaricious gleam in her eye; seducing Bateman, she flatters him with the clumsiness of someone who knows her charm will more than make up for it: "Wow, did you invent vanilla extract? With your brain?"
And yet, "Extract" has something more going on under the slapstick and snappy gags -- a reminder of the difficulty and importance of doing the right thing, a sense that there are good ways, and bad ways, to live your life. Some will find Judge's politics liberal; some will suggest they're conservative; I would simply say that they're American, in the best possible sense of the word, and that Frank Capra might have found a lot to admire in "Extract," even with all the dick jokes and dirty language. "Extract" may take place in a plant that pours artificial flavors into little brown bottles, but the best thing it does is make us laugh by reminding us there are certain things -- real communication, real friendship and real work -- that you can't fake.James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.