Review: Extract

extract one sheetCan an entirely predictable storyline with snappy dialog and an amusing setup produce a film that’s worth watching?  With most directors, the answer would be no, but Mike Judge, who mastered the nuances of everyday conversation and situations with the hit Office Space, has accomplished just that in the new comedy Extract.

Part of what I like to see in movies is the gradual unveiling of the story, where the true allegiance of characters is something we, the audience, figure out alongside the protagonist. Extract is not that sort of story, and we know within the first sixty seconds of the film that Cindy (Mila Kunis) is a grifter, a con artist who drifts from scam to scam. For me, though, the opening scene is one of the funniest in the movie precisely because I didn’t really know what was going on until the hustle was revealed.
Extract is centered on the fictional Reynold’s Extract manufacturing plant that produces vanilla, cherry, almond, root beer and similar food flavorings. Located in an unspecified small midwestern town, the plant is owned and run by Joel (Jason Bateman), with the assistance of general manager Brian (J.K. Simmons). When an industrial accident injures floor foreman Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), the company hires temps, one of whom is the gorgeous Cindy.
There’s more to the film, but that’s the basic storyline: is Cindy planning a con, and if so, what is it and how will it unfold? The real strength of the movie isn’t the predictable unfolding of events, however, but the wry and constantly amusing dialog between the characters, even if it requires that each be a shallow caricature. Stand outs in the supporting cast include the caustic line worker Mary (Beth Grant) and the stoic Hector (Javier Gutiérrez) who seems to only barely understand what’s going on.
Whether you’ll like this film or not depends on how much storyline needs to grab you: there’s no question that the dialog is snappy and amusing and that there are many aspects to the film that are quite witty. If you liked Office Space, you’ll find Extract quite entertaining.

There’s an entire set of films that are built around the premise that the protagonist is a stand-in for the viewer and, once the identification is made, pile more and more misfortune upon the character until they break down and go crazy (Falling Down, for example). Other films in this sub-genre have the character throw up their hands and give up on their life, opting instead to just drive off into the sunset and hopefully reestablish themselves somewhere else in a better circumstance (Into the Wild).
Extract is almost a film in that vein, except while more and more bad things happen to Joel, the most we see him do is surprise his employees by yelling at them and walking out the door. Then, rather than having even a down moment, he immediately starts to pull his life back together, with a bit of coaching and help from his long-time pal Dean (Ben Affleck).
Dean, of course, is the cause of much of the trouble in Joel’s life in the first place, particularly with his great zeal for drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise, as a cure for troubles and stress. In one scene, Dean waxes poetic about the prescription tranquilizer Xanax, saying “Xanax? It just basically makes you feel good, man.”  Later, Dean convinces Joel to smoke some marijuana and then have what seemed a lot more like a reaction to psychedelics than grass. That scene in particular felt a bit out of place in the movie to me, but your mileage may vary.

extract publicity still

Joel and Step commiserate about how their lives have gotten out of control

The drug-peddling tavern owner Dean is an interesting role for Ben Affleck and you can see that he relishes the chance to be a lowlife slacker. Problem is, as with all the other people that appear in Extract, he’s a caricature, not a fully-developed character, which leaves the audience wondering why successful businessman Joel listens to him time and again, even as each of his suggestions is clearly going to backfire.
Another story thread that proves more a setup for comedic lines than any sort of character development is Joel’s frustration with his sex life. Married to the beautiful Suzie, he nonetheless knows that if he’s not home from work by 8pm “the sweat pants go on [her] and he gets nothing.”  He then falls for Cindy and, with some input from Dean, decides that if he can put Suzie in a compromising position, he can then pursue an affair with Cindy, guilt-free. Is that funny, even as a setup for comedy?
Ultimately I realize that Extract is a situational comedy and, like a TV sitcom, the setups are necessary so that the funny situations and snappy lines can be delivered to an appreciative audience. I did laugh during the film, but I was left wanting just a bit more from Judge and his splendid cast.

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