2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
With his 1999 debut feature, "Office Space," writer/director Mike Judge tapped into the universal hilarity of the workplace to which so many cubicle dwellers could relate. Though it bombed at the box office, the comedy went on to achieve massive success on DVD and quickly became a major cult classic not unlike Judge's animated TV programs, "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill" (the latter of which, incidentally, wraps up its 13th and final season this month). It's safe to say that Judge's latest, "Extract," which is set in a different kind of work environment, won't gain the same devoted following of his previous efforts. For whereas they reveled in and thrived on the humor of the mundane, "Extract" simply wallows in it. Unfocused, rarely funny and utterly dispensable, it can't even qualify as a guilty pleasure since the eventual guilt of having spent money on it and time with it far outweighs the minimal pleasures provided.
In light of the recession, many viewers will undoubtedly find relevance in one of the film's disparate plot threads: a scenario in which dozens of factory workers may be in danger of losing their jobs. But since Judge has reportedly been toiling away on "Extract" for nearly a decade, such relevance is more conveniently timed than perceptively planned, and in light of another hot topic (the ever-burgeoning green movement), I offer a different observation that surely wasn't intended: Judge's indefensible wasting of his valuable resources.
For "Extract" (which gets its name from the flavor extract products manufactured in a plant where much of the action takes place), Judge assembled an enviable roster of comedic talents; however, under his fickle direction, hardly any of them are inspired to reach the potential they're known to possess. Though convincing as Joel, the disenchanted and unlucky chem wiz who owns the extract company, Jason Bateman is a little asleep at the wheel, giving us a dialed-down, less likable variant of his amusingly distraught characters in "Juno" and TV's "Arrested Develoment." As Joel's assistant manager, Brian, J.K. Simmons -- who also appeared in "Juno" -- provides the same smart-mouthed, straight-faced levity for which he's become famous, but his work here is perhaps his least remarkable. Clifton Collins, Jr. ("Sunshine Cleaning"), whose bottle-sorting employee, Step, sustains a groin injury and tries to sue the company, is reduced to a redneck stereotype, while Ben Affleck's pill-popping, advice-giving barkeep, Dean, is handed lines that are all-too-telling of the film's failings. ("I'm a bit of a character," Dean says in one of many foolhardy speeches. Quite right: a depthless character, just like the rest of these people.)
Judge's greatest sin is casting deadpan queen Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live") and then assigning her the barren role of The Little Wife. As Suzie, Joel's neglected spouse who tends to choose reality TV over sex (the film makes much of her sweatpants, which, once donned, signify "No Action"), Wiig is given only one scene in which to cut loose and utilize her considerable skills. (Unsurprisingly, said scene, which arrives far too late, is arguably the movie's best.)
Those few who do excel include David Koechner ("Anchorman"), who duly infuriates as Nathan, Joel's grotesque nightmare of a neighbor whose exasperating disposition calls to mind that of Stephen Tobolowsky's Ned Ryerson from "Groundhog Day." (Hint: Nathan factors into Wiig's shining moment.) There's also the lovely Mila Kunis, whose alluring and enlivening presence as con artist Cindy nearly hides her character's poorly-conceived and relatively inconsequential contributions to the story (there's a growing sense that Judge called Kunis just so he could throw a hot girl into the mix). Lastly, there's the dependable and distinguished character actress Beth Grant, whose disgruntled and accusatory factory worker, Mary, slightly resembles the small role Grant played in 2007's "No Country for Old Men."
Grant's part isn't the only connection to the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. Judge might be described as the poor man's Coen brother, what with his similarly-themed but less artfully realized tales of average, (usually) working-class folks who behave badly and often engage in harebrained schemes. But Judge lacks the Coens' superior craftsmanship, their ability to insightfully transcend their subject matter, and their strong clarity of vision. Granted, "Extract" is meant to be an easy-going, absurdist comedy, but it's impossible to sit through its profoundly mediocre, disproportionate scenes and not wonder: "where is all this going?" The three major storylines -- Joel's predicaments at work; his domestic issues with Suzie; and Cindy's initially pronounced, then abruptly capped-off escapades as an expert deceiver -- battle for prominence until we realize they're all headed down the same dead-end street. The tagline for "Office Space" was "work sucks." What are we to believe is the message of "Extract?" Life kinda' sucks, too?
The film isn't without its funny segments. In addition to Wiig's character's confontation with Nathan, Joel, at one point, is forced into taking a monstrous bong hit that's momentarily uproarious; KISS frontman Gene Simmons delivers a notable cameo as a cheesy, temperamental attorney; and a subplot involving a moronic gigolo acts as a droll diversion. But this is hardly the type of comedy you run home and tell your friends about. Its most significant quality is its insignificance. If Judge is indeed more responsible than his characters, he'll aim higher when devising his next harebrained scheme.