The latest comedy from Mike Judge, Extract, seems at first to be more conventional than his previous films, Office Space and Idiocracy. However, as the story becomes more complicated, its characters show hidden depths and the plot provides the type of bizarrely comic situations we've come to expect from the writer-director of Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill.
The movie focuses on Joel (Jason Bateman), who owns a small extract factory in southern California. He and his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) are having trouble maintaining interest in one another, and he's considering the possibility of an affair. His potential lover is the mysterious Cindy (Mila Kunis), who has just arrived to work at the plant as a temp, but who is really a seasoned con artist with some other payoffs in mind. Joel confides in his bartender friend Dean (Ben Affleck), who tends to recommend medication for everything, legal or not. However, his suggestion about what Joel can do to not feel guilty about having an affair involves not pot or pills, but a trap for Suzie. The plot summary barely scratches the surface of this film, which is populated with a fabulous cast of minor characters that truly do support the movie's comedy. J.K. Simmons is immediately funny as the factory manager who can't remember anyone's name. David Koechner's oblivious, persistent neighbor continually annoys Joel and Suzie in a way that makes your worst neighbors seem delightful. And Beth Grant grabs your attention whenever she's onscreen as a very opinionated factory worker. I haven't even mentioned Gene Simmons yet -- his shtick in this movie is simply riveting. Judge himself has a fun little Norma Rae-ish role.
To balance out these characters, who are often almost caricatures, Jason Bateman gives a warm and friendly performance that keeps Joel from seeming like a nerdy whiner. Ben Affleck, as his bartender-friend, reveals that the actor ought to play more comic roles. And Mila Kunis makes it easy to understand how her character can charm men out of anything she wants. Kristen Wiig, unfortunately, doesn't get quite enough to do onscreen as Joel's wife Suzie, and I wish we'd seen more of her.
The comedy is conventional, almost sitcom-y, in the first part of the film -- a deadline-driven sequence involving Joel trying to get home before his wife dons her chastity-belt-like sweatpants recalls the cliched situation of the wife who is tired of sex and doesn't understand her husband's needs. But their relationship is more complex than that. Joel may be unhappy about the sweatpants, but at home he drones on about the extract factory and is even duller than he thinks his wife is. The characters aren't sitcom stereotypes, they're simply not connecting with one another.
In addition, Extract grows progressively darker after the first half-hour, although that darkness is not quite consistent with the film's ending. Still, the storyline sustains itself throughout the film, unless the weak second half of Office Space or Idiocracy's story, which was held together at times by voiceover narration.
Mike Judge has structured this film in a way similar to the old-fashioned "comedy of remarriage" genre found in movies like The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib, but with a focus on the husband, not the couple. Mila Kunis's sexy grifter overshadows Kristen Wiig's dissatisfied wife, and we can see quite easily why Jason Bateman's character might be tempted to stray. I hate to bring up Billy Wilder, because I do that too often, but Extract reminded me a lot of Wilder's underrated Kiss Me, Stupid in terms of its relationship dynamics. Fortunately, Bateman is much easier to sympathize with and like than Ray Walston.
Overall, Extract wasn't as edgy as I anticipated -- although ads are playing up the Office Space parallels, this is more of a sex comedy underneath, and it takes a little while for the sex-comedy aspects to get going. It doesn't seem quite as quotable as Judge's other films, and I wonder if it will have the same long-term cult following. In any case, it's much funnier and more fearless than the other "grown-up" comedies I've seen this year.