The lead character of Mike Judge's quietly hilarious Extract, clean-cut Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman), is decency incarnate. He loves his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig). He's good to the employees of the company he built from the ground up, a factory that produces flavoring extracts of all sorts, from cookies and cream to root beer. Unlike his gruff business partner Brian (J.K. Simmons), he knows all of them by name, from shrill Mary (Beth Grant) to Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), an earnest goofball who aspires to be floor manager. Because of Joel, Reynolds Extract is the coziest factory around.
But Joel's life is not without frustrations. There's the one-man gauntlet he has to run in order to enter his spacious suburban home in the evenings, a persistent, needy neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner), whose desire for dull chitchat is matched only by his obtuseness. And if Joel has any hope of enjoying marital relations with Suzie his most fervent desire he must escape Nathan's clutches and get into the house before she puts her sweatpants on, a nightly ritual that happens at 8 p.m.
Judge, who created Beavis and Butt-head and whose 1999 film Office Space is a cult favorite in the workplace-comedy genre, frames Suzie tying the drawstring of her sweatpants in dramatic close-up, with the kind of musical fanfare that might accompany a gun coming out of a holster in a western. It's a door slamming shut on Joel's manhood, and he's as helpless at opening it as he is at closing one on the tedious Nathan. He is hog-tied by his own amiability.
A protagonist like Joel is a sitting duck about to have his world upended; think Jeff Daniels in Something Wild or another sexually frustrated Joel, the one played by Tom Cruise in Risky Business. From the first frames of the film, in which a kittenish con woman named Cindy (Mila Kunis) is introduced in the midst of a deft act of shoplifting, we know this Joel is headed for trouble girl and, likely, financial. After Cindy reads about an industrial accident in which Step loses a component (and a half ) of his manhood and stands to gain an insurance and lawsuit settlement, she's a freight train steaming toward Reynolds Extract. But we're also hoping the con woman isn't too hard on the factory or its owner; it's Bateman's great gift to be able to make us inordinately fond of a rock-solid average guy. He's become so good at this that it comes as a delightful shock when he plays against type, as in Juno, in which his character turned out to be a jerk, giving the movie just the jolt it needed.
Whenever Joel is stymied by Suzie's sweatpants, he ends up at the sports bar at the nearby Marriott, the aptly named Sidelines, where his old pal Dean (Ben Affleck, shaggy as a bear) tends bar. Dean believes Xanax is the cure for everything, including the common cold. Their conversations head in absurd directions Dean thinks Joel should hire a gigolo to seduce Suzie so he can sleep with the alluring Cindy guilt-free, a suggestion that ultimately does more damage than Cindy does but at the same time have a real naturalism. Imagine Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent sitting at the Marriott bar with no mission more pressing than peeling off a woman's sweatpants.
Judge's gifts parallel those of his leading man. His plotting is full of funny, unpredictable moments but lacks the grating hysteria of the comic genre. In one scene, Joel arrives at a party, sees Cindy, then leaves. To skip a party scene involving romantic interests is tantamount to blasphemy in the wacky-comedy genre, but it's the right decision on Judge's part. We're never sure, until the end, exactly how things are going to end up for Joel.
Stylistically, the movie is so modest that notable stars, like Affleck and Gene Simmons who gives a frighteningly vivid performance as an ambulance-chasing lawyer barely register as themselves. When Affleck cameos for indie director Kevin Smith, there's a lot of fussing, as if there's a "Thanks, Ben!" banner hanging behind him. Judge's take is a welcome contrast. It's the character actors who get to shine here. Koechner is grotesquely right as Nathan, and Saturday Night Live graduate Wiig is far more appealing and nuanced than the sweatpant routine would suggest. Collins, practically unrecognizable as the sweet love interest from Sunshine Cleaning earlier this year, is turning into the chameleon to watch.
The cult appeal of Office Space, a movie told from the point of view of the office drone, has always puzzled me a bit, but the truth is, I watched it from my couch, on DVD, always a soporific setting. I'm happy to have seen Extract in a theater, where the largeness of the screen allows the smallness of the movie to grow on you, and where every subtle comic twitch on Bateman's face can be seen and appreciated. There's nothing vanilla about him.