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Labored Relations

To hear Mike Judge and accommodating reporters tell it in pre-release publicity chat for Extract, his new film, his humor focuses on the social relations of the American workplace. His work, he’s told interviewers, looks at the life of working stiffs, in and out of their work sites. Judge was the creator of MTV’s 1990s animated series Beavis and Butthead, and at least one New York scribe has cited the fact that the two loutishly empty-headed teenaged title characters work at a fast-food joint as an example of Judge’s interests in this subject.

None of the working-class types in Extract is as disgustingly id-driven as those two cartoon characters, but in at least a couple of cases it’s a near thing. Judge’s humor and depiction of the laboring classes in this movie are scarcely benign, even when his broadbrush approach is taken into account. They are, virtually without exception, boobs and grotesques. Not that the managerial class, particularly as exemplified by Judge’s hero, Joel Reynold (Jason Bateman), is entirely exempt from his comic attack, but the disproportionality of mockery is stark.

Joel is portrayed as a sort of entrepreneurial-capitalist Everyman—the sort of boss American movies have long favored. Joel may be a mensch, but he’s also at least a bit of a schlemiel. The workforce at his flavor-extract firm is eccentrically prickly and stupid. His wife (Kristen Wiig) has lost interest in sleeping with him and he seeks consolation and counsel from Dean, the promiscuously advice- and goofball-dispensing barman at the watering hole where he worked as a grad student. (Dean is played by Ben Affleck, looking and sounding unnervingly like a young, shaggy Bruce Dern.)

Joel is put upon by almost everyone because he tries to be nice and diplomatically restrained in the face of severe provocations, such as those posed by the comically clueless incompetents who work on his factory’s assembly line. In a way, Joel is an extension of Bateman’s marginally reasonable and well-intentioned son in the madly self-aggrandizing and dysfunctional upper-class family in Fox’s smugly low-key, mannered, and overrated sitcom of several years ago, Arrested Development.

Bateman seems to be making a habit of playing nebbishy WASPs, but in State of Play, released earlier this year, he gave evidence of a more interesting dramatic bent in a small role as a slick but increasingly desperate Washington PR type. In this one, he’s by no means bad but Judge hasn’t given him much to work with.

The movie leaves the impression that the writer-director couldn’t decide if he was making a down-home sex farce (it’s set somewhere in the suburban Southwest, perhaps Texas, where Judge lives) and a comedy of social observation. The results don’t show much sharpness in either direction. The movie has Dean talking Joel into hiring a cute but running-on-empty-upstairs youth (another Southern redneck fuckup) to seduce his wife so he needn’t feel guilty about seeking extracurricular feminine companionship. This business produces the movie’s best line, but like the rest of Extract, it doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Judge doesn’t build to gags and bits of business and there’s usually no payoff in his scenes. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to have been much to develop in the first place.

On his current animated series for Fox, King of the Hill, Judge also deals in regional caricatures, but there’s just enough of an affectionate, sympathetic tone to temper the burlesquing of his small-town Texas working-class characters.

To the limited extent you can detect a point-of-view informing this movie, it’s an offhandedly complacent superiority and amused dismissal of the ordinary people he lampoons.

Watch the trailer for Extract

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