Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman in "Extract"

Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman in "Extract"

A decade ago, Mike Judge was at the peak of his comedic genius. His King of the Hill was slowly taking the reins from Fox’s own The Simpsons as the funniest show on network television, and while his live action feature debut came and went with little fanfare upon release in 1999, nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find a college student who doesn’t own a copy of Office Space. Plenty of films have taken a swing at lower-upper-middle class malaise (including that year’s Best Picture winner American Beauty), but Judge dared to do it with a baseball bat. He put a mirror up to anyone who has ever been a cubicle drone and gave them a hero in Peter Gibbons, the untamed id of half a century of unsatisfied suburbanites setting a flame to every bad boss, sweeping up every shattered dream, and taking sweet vengeance upon every office employee’s nightmare — the dreaded printer. As in all of Judge’s best work, we saw some part of ourselves. And as I grew up with his canon, I could see myself in his bored teenagers (from Beavis and Butthead to its superior spin-off Daria), and after a summer doing software testing, Office Space became all too true to life.

Somewhere along the way, however, Judge has seemed to lose sight of these sorts of universal truths that made his work relevant and funny. Enter Extract, the multi-hyphenate’s latest offering, featuring Jason Bateman (playing a much less likable version of Michael Bluth here) as Joel Reynolds, owner of a flavored extract manufacturer on the verge of a buyout from General Mills. Joel dreams of ditching the business (where just about every worker is unspeakably incompetent) and retiring, until a major accident leaves one of his workers (Clifton Collins, Jr. as a mostly harmless rube whose sole ambition is to become the floor manager at the factory) less one testicle, and potentially a bit richer.

Office Space played well to the middle class because of the sharp focus of its satire. The bosses were arrogant and blind to just about everything. The employees were heroes, geeks with anger issues, aspiring inventors, boorish cads, and squirrelly little bastards who just wanted their stapler back. In other words, we saw varied, recognizable characters, drawn in broad strokes, but living in a real world. By trying to tell a simultaneous story from the perspective of the bosses and the groundlings, Extract loses its teeth. It doesn’t much help that none of his characters invite a viewer’s sympathy. The bosses are still arrogant and clueless, but now they hire gigolos to sleep with their wives, allowing them to cheat free of guilt. The workers lose all their charm, whether they’re incompetent, annoyingly self-righteous, thieving con artists, or just plain gullible.

What’s worse is the way that consequences seem to become completely irrelevant in Extract. If there’s a central flaw to Office Space, it’s the deus ex machina that prevents Peter’s crime from being discovered. In Extract, we see a somewhat more mature alternative — Joel ultimately decides to stick with the business. But after manipulating his wife (Kristen Wiig, toning it down and phoning it in) into an affair, sleeping with the object of his lust, and essentially being a dick to everyone around him, Joel ends up with his wife in the end. It certainly is a bit less cliche than the alternative of Joel losing his wife and gaining the new, shinier model of woman by the end. And Judge could be showing people in a world where this is the best that they will ever do, or how we’ll settle for anything these days, or how the bosses will always end up OK. No matter what, it seems to spit in the audience’s face.

With his visual palette, Judge seems like he’s aiming for a Coen Brothers style farce (with hillbillies that seem like what Raising Arizona‘s H.I. McDunnough might be like if he huffed paint thinner as a child) without a Coen quality script. Throw in stock goofy musical cues and piss-poor supporting effects (a scene where Joel puffs a bong is notable for its obviously digital clouds of seemingly endless smoke), and you’re stuck with a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. In a world where a movie like Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle has the wit and the teeth to nail social satire and brainless stoner fun simultaneously, it’s disheartening to see Extract fail to be either.

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