It’s fitting that Mike Judge’s last two movies have been released over Labor Day weekend, since he’s one of few American filmmakers actively concerned with the world of work. Workplace dramas have dominated TV for years, effectively replacing shows that revolved around the nuclear family; none of the overachievers on “ER” or “Law & Order” had time for anything more than a fleeting assignation in between saving lives and catching perps. But movies have, by and large, been reluctant to tread the same ground. It falls to indie realists like Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”) and Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) to illuminate the mundane business of making — or, in the latter case, not making — a living.
Judge is an exception, and a more noteworthy one for developing a style that incorporates satire and outright farce without losing track of the real world. (Does anyone know what the characters on “30 Rock” actually do?) The impenetrable jargon of “Office Space” — T.P.S. reports and the like — may not mean anything, but it feels like it does, enough that Judge’s anti-conformist broadside has been embraced, “Dilbert”-style, by cubicle drones who want to be in on the joke.
“Extract,” Judge’s fourth film as a director, climbs the corporate ladder from working stiff to bossman. Joel (Jason Bateman) not only runs Reynold’s Extract, a small factory that turns out bottles of concentrated flavor, he owns the shop. Judge, however, doesn’t use the change in perspective to attack the tyranny of management from the inside. He paints Joel as just another laboring drudge, albeit one with bigger problems than locating his missing stapler.
Although it’s far less pointed than the caustic “Idiocracy,” “Extract” has the same underlying theme: the unstoppable forward march of the morons. From “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill” through his feature films, Judge has established himself as the poet laureate of American stupidity, a trait he embraces as much as he assaults. It’s no coincidence both “Idiocracy” and “Extract” prominently feature a man getting whacked in the balls. The victim of “Extract”‘s testicular mashing is Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), a loyal sorter and would-be floor manager whose workplace injury is caused by the cumulative thick-wittedness of several co-workers: a bottler who lets the assembly line back up to show her disapproval of the plant’s new Mexican employee, a forklift operator who’s more interested in talking up his death metal band than learning to drive.
That’s only the beginning of Joel’s misfortunes, which multiply when a lucrative offer to buy out the factory makes Step the target of a comely con artist named Cindy (Mila Kunis), who cajoles him into filing a workman’s comp lawsuit, which in turn endangers the company’s sale. At Cindy’s suggestion, he hires lawyer Joe Adler (a pustulent Gene Simmons, of the band KISS) a local ambulance chaser whose negotiating tactics involve inviting Joel to crush his testicles in a doorjamb.
There’s some domestic mishegoss as well, involving Joel’s attempts to get his wife (Kristin Wiig) to sleep with a featherbrained hustler (Dustin Milligan), so he won’t feel guilty about making a play for Cindy — a plot cooked up by his friend Dean (a semi-dreadlocked Ben Affleck) and okayed while Joel is under the influence of ketamine. But when Judge steps out of the workplace, he loses his footing. The only moments of sharpness on the home front come when Joel’s interacting with his unctuous neighbor played by David Koechner. Diligently worming his way into Joel’s life, Koechner’s Nathan pounces on every opportunity for a conversation, deaf to Joel’s attempts to shut him down. Koechner walks the line between passive aggression and genuine obliviousness, with just enough mania in his eyes to make his ardor genuinely unnerving.
Judge is a gifted writer, but he doesn’t know how to shape a scene, or use the camera to do anything but watch people talk. That nondescript style fit the deadened environs of “Office Space,” but here it drags everything downward. The spaces between jokes lay fallow, with only perfunctory efforts at character-building to move things along. Perhaps Judge is better suited to cartoons, where the characters return to their starting points at the end of each episode and wait in cold storage until they’re pulled out again.