Labor Pains: With Extract, Mike Judge goes back to work

Sep 2, 2009 at 4:00 am

Mike Judge began writing the screenplay for Extract not long after Office Space opened and closed in a matter of weeks in the late winter of 1999. The two movies were always intended as bookends, with Extract countering the earlier film's woe-is-me tale of the put-upon prole with its fucked-am-I story of the shit-upon bossman. But in between came the love-it-or-loathe-it Idiocracy, a Mad grab bag both prophetic and puerile that studio bosses somehow thought more of A Sure Thing after Office Space burned down to the ground (until they saw, and buried, the finished product). So the second installment in Judge's series of workplace tragicomedies was put on hold till now, a decade into Office Space's accrual of a massive, home-video-bred cult.

As Judge acknowledges, Extract is a sort of spiritual sequel to its now-totemic predecessor, the story of what computer programmer Peter Gibbons might have become ten years after he decided it was no longer enough to clean up someone else's mess. (You may recall, the cubicle drone was last seen shoveling into wheelbarrows the ashes of his former office). Extract's Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman) is Peter rewritten as self-made and flourishing, the owner of a modest food-extract manufacturing company he created out of a childhood aspiration to make his mom's cookies taste better. He is, by any measure, a success — owner of a fancy car and expansive house, husband of a pretty wife. Suburban bliss, to be sipped poolside.

Yet Joel, like Peter, is consumed by dissatisfaction; the accoutrements of achievement provide little reward. (Bateman, still suffering from a case of Arrested Development, has come to perfectly embody the self-neutered American male.) He, too, aspires to do nothing — hence, the tingle of joy at the suggestion that General Mills might be interested in buying out his mom-and-pop operation. If nothing else, Joel would be rid of the annoying employees who work the line and chitter-chatter over the clinking of tiny brown bottles that wind up shattered on the floor as often as they do safely packed in shipping boxes. Joel and his second-in-command, Brian (J.K. Simmons), barely tolerate the gossipy, self-absorbed underlings — Brian refers to each one as "Dinkus" and wonders whether they can be replaced with robots. Meanwhile, conspirators and con artists, among them Mila Kunis' sultry gold-digger, Clifton Collins Jr.'s injured factory worker and Gene Simmons' ambulance-chasing lawyer, gather to swindle Joel out of his life's work.

Joel's home life is equally soul-crushing: His wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) seems far more interested in watching Dancing with the Stars than in sleeping with her husband. His neighbor (former SNL'er David Koechner) is an intrusive, pushy sort who sounds like Office Space's smarmy Bill Lumbergh, down to the last mmmm-yeah-riiiiight. And his best friend Dean (Ben Affleck, somewhere beneath that beard and long hair) is a bartender in a Marriott sports bar who believes Xanax is intended to cure all physiological ailments, including the common head cold. Dean's more frenemy than pal — the kind of guy who tells Joel he just needs to get high, then takes him to smoke out with a thug who'd rather fight and frighten than giggle and munch.

The jokes in Extract play almost like afterthoughts, the last-second add-ons of a former animator who, until now, has always treated his flesh-and-blood characters a bit like cartoon caricatures and vice versa. (Had it not been animated, his series King of the Hill, set in a Dallas suburb, might have been mistaken for a documentary.) Even Office Space, dead-on in its depiction of life beneath the fluorescent lights, was as broad as it was authentic. But Extract isn't nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessor — not even when Collins takes a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet rivet to the balls (pardon, ball), or when Joel smokes out of a bong the size of a small building, or when Simmons' shyster starts gnawing scenery and spitting out splinters.

Which isn't meant as criticism — far from it — but rather as a warning: Extract can, at times, feel uncomfortably real. That's especially true in the scenes featuring Joel and Suzie, who've become a "brother-sister couple," as Joel laments while looking for an excuse to sleep with Kunis' Cindy, a grifter who's taken a temp gig at the factory. Joel insists Suzie's no longer interested in sex — "If I don't get home before 8, she puts on the sweatpants, and once the sweatpants are on, I get nothing."

But in truth, she does want to get laid, and Joel's got his nose buried too far in his BlackBerry to notice. Instead, she turns her affections to the dim-witted pretty boy Joel sends to seduce her to assuage his guilt at wanting to screw Cindy, proving that martyrdom really is the highest form of narcissism. And this time around, there's isn't an obese hypnotherapist in sight who can convince the hero that today isn't the worst day of his life.