In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?
Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.
In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.
Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.
All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?
Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.
At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.