September 3, 2009

Mike Judge's Extracted Truth

by Eric Kohn

EXTRACT writer/director Mike Judge Mike Judge has always presented sophisticated takes on human behavior, but he only recently allowed his anti-heroes to take charge. His fourth movie as a writer-director, Extract, focuses on trouble in suburbia and revolves around a dissatisfied factory owner. This brief synopsis alone should demonstrate the breadth of Judge's thematic journey, but a deeper look reveals its methodical progression.

With the sophomoric antics of Beavis and Butthead, Judge savagely critiqued the inanity of the MTV generation, singling out the lowest common denominator with anthropological specificity: His relentlessly giggling animated idiots qualified as "tornado bait," according to his own assessment, reflecting an ostracized youth culture rather than blindly endorsing it. These caricatures are relegated to the sidelines in Extract, signaling Judge’s broader concerns.

Jason Bateman in EXTRACT When the juice ran out on Beavis' bitter indictment in the mid-nineties, Judge upgraded his interests with King of the Hill, a gentle portrait of middle-class southern attitudes as viewed through the eyes of "common sense guy" Hank Hill. Guided by traditionalist family values and devotion to his settled, below-the-radar existence, Hank expressed his personal values while remaining subservient to a lower class lifestyle. He didn't want to get rich or change the world. By contrast, Extract leading man Joel (Jason Bateman) works hard to make his dough before seeking internal satisfaction, his main goal throughout the movie. Judge needed to work through a few more situations before arriving at this humble premise.

Office Space marked a turning point in the slow-moving Judge canon. With cubicle-oppressed Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), Judge created his first leading man in desperate need of an exit strategy. A decade since its release, the movie looks downright understated in juxtaposition to the vulgar fixations of today's mainstream comedies. Peter's transition from slave of the system to corporate hustler unfolds in a quiet progression of events culminating with his decision to steal from the company, a conclusion that practically makes sense in light of everything that preceded it. Peter does not become corrupt, Judge argues; society, with its backwards fixation on efficiency over happiness, forces him to break the rules so he can save himself. Now, Judge's middlebrow characters were acting out, refusing to lie down and forcibly devour the bullshit of their daily routines. The transition would continue until they won the battle.

Idiocracy Next came Idiocracy. Notoriously dumped by Fox, a studio that failed to understand its widely appreciated satirical edge, the movie contained a trite sci-fi premise in order to sneak in a red flag about America’s degraded intellect. Judge predicted that the dumb gene would increasingly multiply until stupid people dominated the planet, but his grotesque vision of the future clearly served as an allegory for our own times. Inserting modern character Joe (Luke Wilson) into the setting by way of cryogenic freezing, Judge posited that a man of average intelligence would become the smartest person on his future Earth. Given the opportunity to apply his mind for the first time, Joe actually manages to save the ill-fated future society and reaffirm his value on the planet.

Because Joe had been treated as useless in modern times, he stumbled upon his success. Having established the emptiness of striving for appreciation in an indifferent world, Judge turned his interests to financially successful characters unable to obtain self-gratification. Extract notably shifts perspective from his earlier works. Where Office Space brought the camera into the cubicles, Extract rises above the working class to explore the life of an overseer. Joel's productive factory endlessly bottles cherry extract along a virtually unflagging assembly line. He sits in a comfortable office above the operation and cheerfully maintains daily operations. His employees are a melting pot of cultural archetypes: A heavy metal fork-lift operator in a band called "God's Cock" suggests Butthead's more coherent cousin; a pair of old women gossip fearfully about a Mexican coworker; various blue-collar men proudly shuffle about their business as if it's the only game in town. These carefree personalities could easily wander into any of Judge's earlier productions, but Extract places them in secondary positions. The central drama involves Joel coping with sexual frustration and thieving temp worker Cindy (Mila Kunis). He runs into marital and legal troubles, but remains mentally stable and mostly in control of his fate. There's no epic climax. Joel simply accepts his life and continues living it.

Mila Kunis in EXTRACT On this level, Extract signals a major tonal shift in Judge's live action work. The humor is gently observed, rarely louder than the volume of conversation, and fairly believable—closer in atmosphere to King of the Hill than Office Space. As a director, Judge avoids visually audacious choices. (The zany futuristic environment of Idiocracy makes a noteworthy exception.) Extract mainly takes place in three barren locations: Joel's factory, his local bar, and his sizable home. He enjoys his boring turf, but never seems to get home in time to catch his distracted wife (Kristen Wiig) in a horny state. He laments about this situation to his stoner bartender (Ben Affleck, subtly humorous), who comes up with the unlikely proposition of hiring a male gigolo to romance Joel's wife, absolving him of the guilt of cheating on her. Joel, drugged out and annoyed, goes along with it.

Concurrent with the emergence of this unlikely scheme, one of Joel's devout workers suffers a factory-related injury and abruptly loses a testicle. Judge follows this fleeting moment of slapstick with the droll details of the paperwork—insurance claims, and so on. Meanwhile, Cindy concocts a scheme to infiltrate the factory, make contact with the afflicted worker, convince him to sue, and take the money. At this point, two disconnected narrative strands connect: Joel meets Cindy when she enlists as a temp and immediately falls for her, interpreting her fake charm as mutual attraction. As Cindy attempts to rip him off, Joel finds more trouble when the gigolo he hires not only manages to seduce his wife, but fall in love with her as well.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? For all their drama, the twisted romantic entanglements are a red herring. The real quest of Extract involves Joel's need to discover personal satisfaction and the effect this desire has on everyone around him. The chaos eventually simmers down, but the main ideas arise in the first few minutes. The movie opens with a seemingly non-sequitur incident, as Cindy uses her charm to steal a guitar from the local instrument shop. Her actions set the theme: Everyone wants to get ahead, but the means don't always yield a satisfactory end. It's the same problem facing Joel, his injured worker, and pretty much every character in Judge's entire creative output.

Some viewers may interpret the slow pace, subdued humor and simplistic conflict as flaws. Actually, these qualities are Judge’s strong suit. Joel's conundrum recalls that of Rockwell P. Hunter in Frank Tashlin's classic 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in that both Joel and Rockwell sincerely wish to marry success in the workplace with inner happiness. Every Mike Judge protagonist has struggled with this objective since they started having jobs. If he's truly been working his way toward the ultimate everyman story, Extract comes close to finding it.

Beavis and Butthead = Rockwellian? In 1994, Judge told an interviewer that he saw Beavis and Butthead as "a Norman Rockwellian look at America," making room for the interpretation that each of his movies and television series functions as another canvas. His recently canceled primetime animated program, The Goode Family, gently mocked new-age green politics just as Extract mocks suburban discontent. The show, a sitcom about working-class, well-intentioned vegans, never quite settled on whether it sympathized with the organically-inclined family or wanted to deflate the values of their intentions.

Extract, on the other hand, wholly identifies with Joel's curious plight. He's a hero because he rejects heroics in favor of obtaining his own needs, but he still cares—about his wife, his coworkers, and that ridiculous cherry extract—because these elements create the fabric of the reality that he desperately strives to maintain. At long last, a Judge creation knows exactly what it wants.

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Posted by ahillis at September 3, 2009 3:37 PM