At an end-of-the-year panel a few years back, my friend and colleague David Edelstein uttered the immortal line, “Treasure the crackpots.” He was talking about the idiosyncracies of film critics, but I’ve come to apply the line more often to filmmakers, particularly those who are still trying to work in that admittedly nebulous category we call the Hollywood mainstream, a world in which any sort of original vision is discouraged — now so more than ever — and the grosses of “Transformers 2″ are the gold standard against which everything is measured.
Particularly in the context of that gold standard, Mike Judge is a crackpot to treasure, and his new movie, “Extract” — which is being released by Miramax — is the kind of smart, openhearted comedy that doesn’t come along every day. Judge’s last movie, the 2006 “Idiocracy,” received only a bare-bones release from its studio, 20th Century Fox; after seeing it on DVD months later, I was amazed that it showed up even in that format. The movie, which stars Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph, takes place in a world 500 years in the future, populated by humans who have become progressively dumber. In this dystopian society, Fox News Corp. — Judge doesn’t even bother to disguise the name — feeds the populace gross misinformation presented in an intentionally sensationalistic and misleading manner. What makes “Idiocracy” admirable, and surprising, is that even though Judge is clearly making fun of Americans’ stupidity and greed, he sidesteps superiority and smugness. Instead of drawing a line in the sand between “us” (the smart people) and “them” (the stupid ones), he dreams of a world in which there’s no line at all.
Judge is also, of course, the creator of TV’s “Beavis & Butt-Head” and “King of the Hill,” as well as the director of the disappointingly flat 1996 “Beavis & Butt-Head Do America” and the beloved cult fave “Office Space” (1999), so his crackpot credentials are pretty well established. Even so, considering that so much movie entertainment these days comes to us pre-chewed, the appearance of “Extract” in these last days of summer feels like a gift. Jason Bateman is Joel Reynold, the owner of a business he built from the ground up, a food-flavoring enterprise called Reynold’s Extract. Joel has a nice office at work and a beautiful home complete with a built-in swimming pool. He also has a very bored wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), who has lost interest in having sex with him. (Joel has cottoned to the fact that if he gets home from his workday even one minute later than 8 p.m., she’s already changed into her comfy sweat pants for the night. And if the sweat pants are on, all bets are off.)
Joel is a capitalist, though not the worst kind: He believes in the product he created, and he tries to run a reasonably fair workplace. But, as he laments to his soulful, laid-back bartender friend Dean (a bearded and very funny Ben Affleck), he isn’t very happy. Unfortunately, he has nothing but misadventures ahead of him: They involve an employee, Step (played by the always wonderful Clifton Collins Jr.), who suffers a highly unfortunate workplace accident, a dishy grifter named Cindy (Mila Kunis) who roars into town intent on making trouble, and a not-very-bright but heartbreakingly sweet gigolo named Brad (Dustin Milligan), who’s built like Adonis but who processes verbal information with the speed of a garden slug.
There’s also an excruciatingly annoying neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Summarizing the outlandish goings-on of “Extract” is beside the point: What’s really remarkable is how much mastery Judge has over its tone. Early on, I feared that “Extract” might be coated with a facile, misanthropic sheen: At one point Joel’s second-in-command, Brian (J.K. Simmons), points to a dunderheaded heavy-metal-head worker on the factory floor and snickers at his inability to operate a forklift: “That’s his whole career, driving that forklift. You’d think he’d want to learn how.” But it quickly becomes clear that Brian is that easily identifiable workplace type — the guy who thinks he knows everything — and that Judge feels the same degree of affectionate, jaundiced frustration toward him as he does toward the poor loser who can’t keep control of the forklift.
“Extract” is all about that frustration. This isn’t a misanthropic picture; its true subject is the way love for our fellow human beings is so often thwarted by their actual behavior — and still, stupidly perhaps, we just won’t give up on them. “Extract” demands that we navigate a sea of shifting sympathies. Sometimes Joel is the buffoon, the fat-cat company owner who doesn’t know how good he has it, compared with his employees. But when Brian refers to several employees, in quick succession, as “Dinkus,” Joel points out, diplomatically, that he never has any idea whom Brian is talking about — perhaps he might take the time to learn the employees’ names? And one of the floor workers, a gossipy, pinched-looking woman named Mary (Beth Grant), continually complains that no one else in the plant ever does any work; she makes these pronouncements while standing around with her hands on her hips, as her own responsibilities drift by on the conveyor belt before her. When her purse is stolen — and this is after our grifter friend Cindy appears on the scene — she points her bony finger at one of the dutiful, silent Mexican workers Joel employs. Again, Mary is a recognizable type — but Judge uses her as a way of pinpointing what’s so often wrong about the way we look at the world, the way the easiest conclusions are often the wrong ones.
Judge gives his actors a rich playground here: Kunis is a sexy, hardhearted little charmer; Wiig, as always, is terrific, toning down her deadpan wackiness just a bit in a way that serves her role. And Bateman, whose performances in recent pictures like “Hancock” and “State of Play” have been consistently pleasurable to watch, is wonderful here: His face is always ready to register pleasure, befuddlement or sometimes both at once; he’s the ultimate well-meaning Everyman, stumbling every other step on his way to what he perceives as human perfection, or at least human OK-ness.
“Extract” is a terrible title for a movie, but it makes more sense if you think of it as both a noun and a verb: In the latter sense, it might refer to the necessity of removing yourself from an outmoded way of thinking about life, or of drawing out the poison that can build up inside of us when we’re not paying attention. I want to make sure I don’t paint “Extract” as some sort of beatific, feel-good exercise. There’s no redemption in “Extract.” Bad characters don’t miraculously turn good; truth-telling isn’t rewarded with warm, fuzzy feelings or even a sense of relief. But somehow I left “Extract” feeling better about the world — a feeling that managed to outlast even my subway ride home.
That’s saying something, considering that when I reached the platform, I was greeted by an almost perpetual high-pitched screech, emitting from a child of around 2 strapped in a stroller. Everyone turned to look, partly out of curiosity (this was a very big sound for such a little guy) and partly to make sure everything was OK, which it seemed to be. The mother, who also had two little girls in tow, was patiently trying to hold the situation together as best she could. The sympathetic West Indian woman standing next to me surveyed the situation and suggested that perhaps this was the child’s only way of communicating — he didn’t seem to be able to speak.
The train arrived, and the mother and her troupe entered the car, where the noise was only intensified — no one could ignore it. Two beefy white guys in their mid-20s sitting across from me, who might have been considered good-looking if they didn’t have such mean little eyes and tight little smiles, started in with their wisecracks: “Shut that kid up!” said one. His buddy smirked and rejoindered, loud enough for everyone around him to hear, “I’ll shut it up — I’ll smother it.”
Considering I’d just come out of a strange and sweet picture that takes such a forgiving view of mankind’s considerable flaws — and one that had made me laugh, as opposed to being constructed like some boring civics lesson — I felt as if I’d just been returned to Earth via crash landing. It never ceases to amaze me how eager some people are to present their ugliest side to the world. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the scene around me — including the screaming child, the frustrated, embarrassed mother, the kindly bystander and the thuggish boneheads — could have been drawn from a Mike Judge movie, and that if nothing else, the ideas Judge flirts with in “Extract” might provide a kind of permeable armor for navigating the world. People can be horrible; none of us should be surprised by that. The flip side of that certainty is that, thankfully, people can and do surprise us — it’s their job, after all.