Cover illustration of Nikolai Semenovich Tikhonov's Dvenadtsat Ballad, 1925
I'm not sure if I'd call Extract a return to form for Mike Judge - I've never had strong feelings about his body of work one way or another - but it's a story hewn from from realistic circumstances and lifelike people, putting it light-years ahead of his last movie, the wildly uneven and unsubtle Idiocracy. The premise is pretty simple, anchored in events that took place years before the movie begins: Joel (Jason Bateman), a grad student studying chemistry and working as a bartender, isolates a component in wintergreen oil that can be added to flavorings to reduce the amount of burn-off during the cooking process. He starts a company, Reynolds Extract, and it gradually becomes a very successful venture with a state-of-the-art bottling facility. At some point, he marries Suzie (Kristen Wiig), a graphic designer who designs logos for the company. He buys a nice house and a BMW and spends a lot of time working - in his spare time, he hangs around with longtime bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck).
It's a mundane premise that could be the life story of your neighbor, if you live in a nice neighborhood where people have BMWs. This foundation allows Mike Judge to make the most of his awkwardness-and-impotent-fury humor, and Extract is a modest but excellently executed comedy as a result. On this foundation you simply add a couple random elements - a freak accident at the plant results in a workplace injury, a young grifter named Cindy (Mila Kunis) starts working at the plant, and Joel starts making some bad personal decisions fueled by sexual frustration and horse tranquilizers. The chaos unleashed on Joel is pretty brutal, but it never gets so bad that you stop laughing at his bad luck. Extract concludes with a too-neat ending that is at odds with its everyday premise, but this worked for me because I like tidy comedic endings.
The cast of Extract is as good as you can ask for, and Mike Judge's team gets points for some inspired choices. Jason Bateman is an obvious choice for Joel, and he's great, but casting Ben Affleck as the stoner best friend is an oddball choice that works really well. Affleck is obviously having fun with a little role that gives him something to chew on, and most of his scenes work really well. I was also worried about Judge using David Koechner here - he's played the same loudmouthed oaf character in Anchorman, The Office, Reno 911, and a dozen other places - but does a good job of playing against type as Joel's terminally boring and annoying neighbor Nathan. Mila Kunis and Kristen Wiig aren't given much to work with as female leads, as is common in comedies of this kind, but they make their roles work.
If anything, Extract is a little too mundane. I had some trouble getting excited to write about it - it's like retelling a kinda-funny story you heard from a friend. But not everything has to happen on a huge scale, and Extract is comfortable succeeding on a smaller scale. It's a tightly-written and excellently-acted little comedy about normal people, which is a breath of fresh air after a summer of blockbuster-style grandiosity.
"Factory of Raw Essentials" by Guided By Voices