Thursday, September 10, 2009

Extract: Flavorless

Extract (2009) • View trailer for Extract
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.10.09
Buy DVD: Extract• Buy Blu-Ray: Extract [Blu-ray]

Some indie productions  Juno and Little Miss Sunshine leap to mind  overcome their financial limitations and modest production values practically from the first frame. All involved obviously are talented and working just as hard (if not harder) as they would on a big-budget Hollywood production, if only to demonstrate that "low budget" need not be synonymous with "cheap."

Other indie productions are strictly amateur hour: dull, plodding curiosities that might have pleased the participants as the cinematic equivalent of home movies, but never should have been made available to an unsuspecting public.
When Joel (Jason Bateman, right) shares his marital unhappiness with longtime
best friend Dean (Ben Affleck), the latter concocts a crazed scheme to "trap"
Joel's wife into infidelity, thus paving the way for our hero (?) to soothe his
soul with a little of his own action on the side. Granted, cynical human
behavior has been exploited successfully in countless other film comedies,
but this one's strictly a nonstarter.

Extract belongs to the latter category.

This third live-action effort from writer/director Mike Judge, best known for his animated TV shows Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, is as limp a noodle as I've endured in awhile. Whatever his facility with pencil-and-paper characters, Judge hasn't the faintest idea how to direct actual living human beings; everybody in this tedious blue-collar comedy drifts somnambulately from one scene to the next, as if the catering truck had laced its lunches with the mind-altering pills this story's hero pops at one point.

These are entry-level problems: humdrum camera angles, bland color palettes, poor pacing, indifferent editing  far too many useless scenes that run too long  and actors who always seem to be half a second late with their line readings.

All of which reminds us of the skill possessed by a truly competent director, because at least two of the cast members here  Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons, and perhaps Ben Affleck on a good day  are capable of much better work. More crucially, much better comic timing.

Judge, however, can't extract a good scene from anybody. I'll give him credit for penning some amusing lines, but they'd have been a helluva lot funnier if the characters had put some effort into delivering them properly.

An additional problem isn't entirely Judge's fault: Familiarity breeds contempt. Extract is another in a long line of recent comedies that surround only one reasonably intelligent protagonist with supporting characters who collectively possess the IQ of a butter dish. Honestly, I'm not sure these people could dress themselves each morning.

One hopes Judge didn't intend this as some sort of indictment of factory workers, because the collective portrait is pretty damning.

Bateman, basically channeling the role he played in TV's Arrested Development, stars as Joel Reynold, a self-made success who built a little empire with his own flavor extract factory and successful distribution model. The company has drawn the attention of General Mills, which has entered negotiations to buy Joel out and make him quite rich.

But maintenance isn't nearly as interesting as creation, and this truism can be applied both to the ennui Joel feels at work, and the dismal rut into which his marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has fallen. Joel shares such frustrations with longtime buddy Dean (Ben Affleck), who works at a local sports bar; based on all available evidence, Joel should have learned long ago not to bother with any advice from Dean.

But no, in order for Judge's script to lurch forward, Joel has to seriously consider Dean's suggestion that a dim-bulb gigolo (Dustin Milligan, as Brad) be hired to tempt Suzie into infidelity, while posing as the new pool cleaner; if she succumbs, then Joel can pursue the new factory hottie (Mila Kunis, as Cindy) with a "clear conscience."

Maybe it's the horse tranquilizer than Dean slips his friend, intending only to put him in a more mellow frame of mind, but Joel agrees to this crazy scheme.

At first, subsequent random interactions with both his wife and a cheerfully enthusiastic Brad are left ambiguous. I wondered if Judge were craftily setting us up for a big reveal when Joel learns that (as one option) Brad actually had gone to the wrong house, and seduced some neighbor's wife, and that Suzie's apparently guilty behavior was all circumstantial coincidence.

But no: Judge isn't that clever. Dean's scheme unfolds precisely as advertised, and absent any sort of erotic slapstick  everybody remains fully clothed throughout this film  the payoff just ... isn't ... interesting.

Meanwhile, Joel has other issues. One of his employees, a machismo-ridden doofus (Clifton Collins Jr., as Step) with delusions of becoming floor manager, endures a factory accident that impairs his manhood; this blossoms into a crisis when the greedy and wholly amoral Cindy, actually a career con artist, cozies up to Step and encourages him to hire a shyster bus bench attorney (Gene Simmons, of KISS) to sue Reynold Extracts out of existence.

We might care, if any of these people touched us on a remotely emotional level; they don't, so we can't. Even Bateman, generally so good at playing an aggrieved and long-suffering decent fellow, is too indifferent here. And besides, Judge's script isn't arch enough for us to forgive Joel's willingness to trick his wife.

Its glacial pacing aside, this film also is marred by odd subplots and too many missed opportunities. Cindy apparently has a boyfriend, at least in one scene, who exists only to help Joel through his first bong experience and then give him a black eye. Next time we see Cindy, she's living alone, the boyfriend so much an afterthought that we can't help wondering why he was introduced in the first place.

Simmons is as shamefully underused here as he is in Post Grad, another late-summer misfire. As Brian, Joel's second in command, Simmons' sole funny bit is his character's unwillingness to learn any of the employees' names. Beth Grant is mildly amusing as a bitter, racist slouch at the end of the assembly line, but T.J. Miller never goes anywhere with his role as a goth-rock geek who spends most of his working hours passing out flyers for the five bands that count him as a member.

Collins, well remembered for his compassionate supporting role in Sunshine Cleaning, actually breathes some three-dimensional life into Step; I guess that must've been an oversight on Judge's part. David Koechner also is reasonably funny as Joel's intrusive, deadly dull neighbor: the only character in this dreary affair who delivers a genuinely surprising payoff.

All the rest produces little more than head-scratching, most notably the "resolution" between Joel and the slutty Cindy: as bewildering a "What the...?" moment as could be imagined.

Both of Judge's prior live-action films, 1999's Office Space and 2006's Idiocracy, were still-born failures disowned by their respective studios and sent straight to video. Fairness demands that I acknowledge how both have garnered mild cult status since; perhaps this explains why Miramax approved an actual theatrical roll-out for Extract.

They shouldn't have bothered.

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