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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bye, the balls

Mike Judge's comedy of castration really works

Posted on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 at 4:00 AM

****
Extract
Studio: Miramax Films
Rated: R
Cast: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, J. K. Simmons
Director: Mike Judge
WorkNameSort: Extract
Our Rating: 4.00

The marketing for Extract wants to remind you that this is the latest from writer-director Mike Judge, creator of Office Space. This film, however, for all its workplace shenanigans, merits closer comparison to Alexander Payne's 1999 dark satire Election. It's a more astutely observed comedy of middle-aged malaise and the havoc wreaked on the status quo when one man uses petty ploys to get one girl in trouble.

Joel (Jason Bateman) isn't getting laid. The running of his flavor-extract plant and the ill-timed interruptions of a nosy neighbor (a hysterical David Koechner) are preventing him from enjoying the finer delights of his wife (Kristen Wiig). Fed up by the lack of carnal attention, Joel, on the advice of bartending buddy Dean (Ben Affleck), devises a plan to get Mrs. Joel to cheat on him by hiring a gigolo. If she takes the bait, he figures, he will be free to mack on temp employee Cindy (Mila Kunis) and Lil' Joel can finally be happy.

Oh, and did I mention that Cindy's a small-time schemer who is only in town to talk a recently injured employee (Clifton Collins Jr.) into suing the company, which would, in turn, cock-block Joel from a financial standpoint?

It's a lot to take in, and while Judge juggles a considerable ensemble of overlapping dilemmas and countervailing agendas with admirable dexterity, it sometimes comes at the cost of characterization. Kunis' flirt is as attractive as can be, but she's a catalyst more than a character. Just as passive, Wiig seems blissfully unaware of the crimes she's committing against Bateman's manhood on a nightly basis.

On the male end, Collins makes for an affable victim: once a floor manager in the making, now left literally sans testes by the job he loved and the co-workers he tolerated. As a bad influence with good intentions, Affleck gives comedic and physical shagginess a try, and the results are fitfully amusing. The brainless gigolo played by Dustin Milligan, though, is funnier.

That leaves Bateman, so relatable as the head sap of the Bluth clan on Arrested Development and a little less likable here. We're supposed to sympathize with a man who can't get laid and can't get paid because he doesn't know how good he's got it. While that's a tall order for any actor to manage, he earns as much of our pity and our laughs as possible.

Judge ultimately proposes that happiness (as much as misery) is controlled by the whims of others, which suggests a refreshing thematic clarity to his comedy. Then again, it's just nice to see Judge working again, because when he works, it really works.

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