Man in the Middle
By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Mike Judge, U.S., Miramax
A rallying cry for the put-upon boss, Mike Judge's Extract makes for a perverse double feature with Office Space (1999), Judge's cult favorite about cubicle life. Both movies are set in the modern workplace and, more generally, wallow in the American quotidian. But where Office Space sympathized with the drones and skewered corporate culture, Extract flips the perspective—here we see things through the eyes of management. “Is This Good for the COMPANY?” read a banner in Office Space, a deadpan flourish that lampooned the corporate mentality. The banner doesn't make an appearance in Extract, even if it's all but preached in earnest as a parting moral.
It's no wonder conservative commentators have adopted Mike Judge as one of them. King of the Hill, his long-running series on Fox, featured as its hero a red-state everyman. Idiocracy (2006) was praised by one conservative commentator as a “stirring defense of traditional values.” This past summer, Judge's newest series, The Goode Family, a satire of ultra-PC, eco-consciousness, had a short-lived run on ABC. But such pigeonholing sells Judge short. More ethnographer than polemicist, he gets his kicks from depicting a heightened version of the banal—as we are, only more so. If Extract and Idiocracy are anything to go by, what really fires up Judge isn't party or politics, but the American ignoramus. To assert that Judge’s movies are conservative is to suggest that the right rejects, rather than celebrates, know-nothingism—a risible proposition from the party of birthers, deathers, and Palinism.
Swallowing the management-as-hero hook is much easier when Jason Bateman plays the boss. As Joel, the owner of a flavor-extract company in an anonymous exurb, Bateman essentially plays a variation of Michael Bluth, his role in Arrested Development that led to his current renaissance. Decent to the point of dull, Joel is getting ready to sell his company to a larger corporation when a mishap on the factory floor kills the dream. Mary (Beth Grant) wants to make a point about the newly hired Mexican—whom she accuses of slacking—and stops doing her job on the assembly line. Her act sparks a chain reaction that leads to an accident: the half-castration of Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the wannabe floor manager. Content at first to take the insurance money, Step starts thinking lawsuit when Cindy (Mila Kunis), a gorgeous con woman, comes into his life and pushes him toward a bigger payday. Even as he fends off problems at work, Joel finds no reprieve at home. Suzie (Kristen Wiig), his wife, has lost interest in sex; his neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner), all but camps out on his lawn.
An even straighter arrow than Luke Wilson's Average Joe in Idiocracy, Bateman's Joel is pleasantly (and pointedly) vanilla. When the scheming Cindy comes into his factory as a temp—and looking for info for her plot—Joel can't take his eyes off her, and he promptly feels bad for even thinking about cheating on Suzie. But his bartender friend Dean (a hilarious Ben Affleck) comes up with a solution: hire a gigolo to seduce Suzie, then cheat on her guilt-free. Initially skeptical, Joel gives his assent during a drink-and-drug-fueled rap session, enlisting the dim-witted Brad (Dustin Milligan, stealing every scene he's in) to pose as the new pool cleaner.
Though more assured as a piece of storytelling than Judge's previous movies, Extract again shows that plot isn't his strongest suit. Frankly, it seems to bore him. What interests him more is character and environment. His background as a cartoonist—let's not forget Judge shot to fame with Beavis and Butthead—is evident in his movies. He defines secondary characters with telling tics and annoying mannerisms. Much of the work is done in the casting. The caricaturist's flourishes never seem grafted on—they feel organic and integrated. His gift for shtick and catchphrases notwithstanding, Judge's humor is distinguished by its understatement. The slow burn of perplexity and angst—see the look on Bateman's face as Brad struggles to comprehend the gigolo plot—is his comedic device of choice, not the punchline or set piece. If his side characters play like vivid cartoons, his heroes are fleshed out and humanized. Given the gift of inner lives, Judge's heroes find themselves navigating a world that seems to be operating on a different wavelength.
That world looks an awful lot like ours. Office Space and Extract take place in a prosaic landscape of office parks, chain restaurants, McMansions, and hotel bars. Judge, who lives in Austin, never veers too far from the ground truth of American life. (And yet he's all too aware of the class tensions that arise in a society as fluid as ours, as when a stoned, smitten Joel obnoxiously refers to Cindy's look as “working-class.”) Like Office Space, Extract transforms the deadening routine of daily into the comforting rhythms of a comic strip, toggling from one familiar set-up to another: Joel at the bar moping about his home life, Joel pulling into his driveway trying (and failing) to avoid Nathan; Joel taking off work early as the pressure builds.
But Idiocracy, not Office Space, may actually be the better twin bill offering with Extract. As with that movie's protagonist, Joel tries to keep his head afloat amid the moronic tide. Joel's workforce suggests nothing less than the discontented populace. Mary is fixated on everyone else not doing their jobs (particularly that Hispanic guy she just can’t seem to accept), while doing little work of her own. Forklift operator Rory (T.J. Miller) spends most of the day handing out flyers to his band's next gig—and yet demands that he get a piece of the company when it's sold. Meanwhile, the harmless Step is easily led astray by a hot woman and a slick lawyer on TV (a perfectly sleazy Gene Simmons). Driven by misinformation and mob hysteria, the workers unite, and just as quickly fall apart. After a summer of town halls and tea parties, Extract offers a cathartic laugh at the expense of the brain-dead American—and an unexpected defense of the smart, sober manager whom the frenzied crowd would overthrow.