I am excited by food flavorings

Main Cast: Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, JK Simmons

Director: Mike Judge

You remember Mike Judge, don’t you?  He splashed into the pop culture pool back in 1993 as the creator and voice of the chronic parent irritant Beavis and Butthead.  Later on he would be responsible for another long-running animated series, King of the Hill – again voicing the main character.  If nothing else you’d recognize his voice in a heartbeat.

You’ve come a long way since Beavis and Butthead, Mike

But Mike Judge has done more than animated series.  He’s made 3 movies.  The first, in 1999, flopped at the box office, leaving Judge a little demoralized.  But in this world of DVD and the internet a little film like Office Space can become, over the years, a cult classic.  Its director, though not feeling warm and fuzzy after its initial release, might consider, many years down the road, returning to direct another feature film.  And so it was, as Judge made his second film, Idiocracy, in 2006.  Again, not a huge box office hit.  But Judge had learned that there is more to being a director than your First Weekend numbers and he stepped behind the camera again in 2009 to bring us a little gem called Extract.  Thanks for hanging in there, Mike.

Extract is about, of all things, extracts.  Yep, food extracts – vanilla, almond, root beer and more.  Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman) founded Reynolds Extracts and has real enthusiasm for the food extract industry.  But Joel, as we enter his life, is in the midst of a rather epic mid-life crisis.  His wife (Bridesmaids‘ fabulous Kristen Wiig) is freezing him out, his neighbor is a persistent, relentless irritant, there’s been an unfortunate accident at the factory that’s threatening Joel’s plans to sell the thing and there’s a sexy new employee (Mila Kunis) that’s proving to be all kinds of distracting.

Joel turns to best friend Dean (Ben Affleck) with his woes and together they and a lot of liquor hatch a plan to allow him to contemplate an affair without feeling guilty.  Before he knows it everything is completely out of hand and he has absolutely no one to blame but himself.

As a general rule I am not a fan of the adultery comedy.  I just don’t find cheating on a spouse amusing or entertaining. But Extract manages to deftly sidestep my queasiness by being so absurd and goofy that it’s impossible to take anything, even the adulterous intent at the core of the movie, seriously.  It’s a comedy of errors with Bateman as the straight man amongst so many weird and wonderful characters that he gets to use his patented exasperated face in every other scene.

Unlike other “quirky” comedies with eccentric characters, Extract seems to have perfected the balance between weird and annoying.  We understand Joel’s reaction to the people in his life – the persistent neighbor who he can’t stand but doesn’t want to offend (played with absolute relish by The Office’s David Koechner), the unfortunate accident victim who really is a good guy who’s being used as a pawn in a pretty girl’s game, even Dean, who has the worst ideas in the whole, wide world – but really loves Joel and in his way is trying to help.   We watch as Joel loses control and damn if it isn’t just plain funny.  The characters, the situations, Joel’s reactions.  I laughed.  A lot.

Much of the credit for making Extract as fun and funny as it is goes to the actors.  Jason Bateman is, of course, the eternal straight man and he’s at the top of his game.  Waxing rhapsodic about food flavorings or dealing with his pesky neighbor, Joel is not a despicable cheating bastard, he’s a fumbling mid-life crisis in khaki pants.  Ben Affleck is genius as Dean – the chemistry between the two actors is clear and I can’t quite imagine how they ever got through a scene with the be-wigged Affleck and his stoner’s wisdom.  JK Simmons always rocks and that doesn’t change here.  He doesn’t know any of the employees’ names and lives for the day they sell the company.  He’s a nerd with a bad attitude but absolutely no malice – he just doesn’t give a rip any more.  Clifton Collins Jr., Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Dustin Milligan and even Gene Simmons from KISS add to the chaos with great glee and terrific comic timing.  Judge himself even gets into the act in a small role as one of the factory workers.  And yes, he’s funny.

Jason Bateman is also excited by food flavorings

But it’s Judge who pulls it all together into a world where there’s nobody really despicable, nobody delivering hurt that they aren’t also inflicting on themselves and everybody really just wants to get to the end of the day and feel good about their lives.  He manages to bring this large cast of wingnuts together into a sweet miasma of dysfunction that sort of works for everybody.  He also lets his actors act – and react – both playing to their proven strengths and letting them off the tether to do something new.

Extract has its excesses and misses.  Some of the adultery comedy is not, to me, as funny as the rest of the movie.  Affleck’s character can be too much after a while and at some point we can’t help but be annoyed at Bateman’s stupidity and bad decisions.  But those moments are rare enough that they don’t tarnish the experience too badly and Extract remains funny through the end.  There’s a little poignant thrown in for good measure, of course, and even that works pretty well.

There’s a funny featurette included on the DVD that is more than worth a watch.  It’s mostly a riff on the usual fawning “making of” featurettes that are nothing more than the actors and director congratulating each other for being wonderful and it’s always funny to hear a little bit of Beavis accidentally slip out of Judge’s mouth.   4 stars for Mike Judge and his surprisingly funny adultery comedy.


photo by Mike Coit and Luke Ford

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