' ' Cinema Romantico: Extract

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Like his cult fave "Office Space", writer/director Mike Judge's "Extract" is bubbling over with supporting characters that despite their often hilarious absurdity seem grounded in people you might actually encounter in real life. A beautiful woman who knows she is beautiful and knows that you know she is beautiful and, thus, uses this beauty to her advantage. A middle manager so fed up with his employees he simply refers to them all as "dinkus". A showboat lawyer who finds one particular phrase that sums up his case and hammers it home. A moronic cool guy who uses the word "dude" like college football color commentators use the word "poise". A bartender at a hotel watering hole who thinks he has all the answers. A guy attached to a couch where he watches hunting shows and glugs Pepsi straight from the 2 liter. And, my absolute favorite, the next-door, too-talkative, waaaaay-overly-friendly neighbor who - in my favorite line of dialogue from the film - makes you afraid to go on your own lawn. (That is my ultimate suburban nightmare.)

All these variations of lunatics find themselves in the orbit of Joel (Jason Bateman, understated, fairly empathetic), a self-made owner of a factory that produces food flavorings. Along with his second-in-command (J.K. Simmons - God, this guy is always good) he schemes to sell off the place to General Mills and, as it so often goes, make enough money to retire. But tragedy strikes in a very Mike Judge-esque way when a factory mishap results in loyal employee Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) losing a significant portion of his, shall we say, manhood. He plans to settle with the company, ensuring that nothing derails the sale to General Mills.

Or does he? Enter Cindy (Mila Kunis), the aforementioned self-aware beautiful woman who puts her beauty to the most nefarious uses (witness the great opening sequence) who gets wind of Step's plight, takes a job at the factory, Meets Cute with Step, and eggs him on to sue the place for all its worth.

Of course, in screenwriting terms, this is merely Joel's main crisis and so we must have a secondary crisis too. That would be Joel's distracted spouse Suzie (Kristen Wiig) whose dreaded sweatpants, which always seem to be on, ensure endless sexual frustration for her husband. Without any real intentions Joel voices his complaints to Dean (a good Ben Affleck), the "helpful" bartender, over post-work cocktails. Joel says he wants to cheat with Cindy but could never cheat unless Suzie cheats first which prompts Dean to suggest sending a gigolo over to Joel's house in the guise of a pool cleaner to see if Suzie will cheat which, in turn, would free Joel of his pesky moral obligation.

Here's where the movie starts to sink. First, it does a peculiar thing where it shoots the entire gigolo-seducing-Suzie situation in such a way to suggest that it will all be a wacky misunderstanding. I suppose Judge wanted to keep us guessing but I found the whole scheme irritating. Second, Suzie is just another example (like Jennifer Aniston in "Office Space") of Judge under-writing his female lead. Would she do what she does with the gigolo? I don't know. Maybe. But we never get a look at Suzie's psyche to be sure. It's all set-up for Joel.

Which leads me to my other point - Judge's tendency to have his main character make critical decisions while under the influence. Remember in "Office Space" how Peter Gibbons doesn't stand up to the corporate "man" until he gets hypnotized and then the hypnotist dies before taking Peter out of his trance? In "Extract" Joel reaches important verdicts when he is alternately stoned on a horse tranquilizer and pot. Perhaps this is Judge's commentary. Men are too meek to decide anything without a little help from their "friends". But if his live action movies continue this trend it's going to get more and more suspicious.

In the end everything plays out pretty much how you expect. Well, almost. Regardless of the film's flaws I very much enjoyed David Koechner, in a stunningly restrained performance, as that exasperating next-door neighbor Nathan whose fate only on the surface seems harsh. I was made to recall that exalted exchange from "Unforgiven" when Clint Eastwood towers over Gene Hackman and Hackman says "I don't deserve to die like this" and Eastwood replies "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

Sometimes it does. Memo to my future next-door neighbors: Get Off My Lawn.

No comments: