September 09, 2009

Extract is the third live-action film written and directed by Mike Judge, creator of the hit animated TV series Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill (which will broadcast its final episode this coming Sunday after 13 seasons). Judge’s first was 1999’s Office Space and the second was the dysgenic sci-fi satire Idiocracy, which 20th Century Fox hostilely dumped into the doldrums of the 2006 Labor Day Weekend with no marketing effort whatsoever. Judge recalls, “€œI mean, to find it on Moviefone, you had to look under U for Untitled Mike Judge Project.”€ Unsurprisingly, Idiocracy died at the box office, but, like Office Space, its best lines have since entered the culture.

Now he’s back with the self-financed Extract, a low budget workplace comedy. I guess Judge is to Labor Day, the worst movie weekend of the year, what Will Smith is to Independence Day. Judge may well be the only person in the entertainment business whose work is deeply concerned, both sympathetically and realistically, with people on the left half of the bell curve. He often appears to be only artist who can bear in mind three relevant concepts:

1) That half the human race is below average in intelligence, which has serious (and sometimes hilarious) consequences.
2) Yet, everybody is equally human.
3) And, people on the right half of the bell curve have responsibilities to people on the left half that begin with not using their intellectual ability to theorize away the existence of the bell curve.

While perhaps not the most profoundly gifted, Judge is among the most broadly talented figures in American popular culture. After graduating with a physics degree from UC San Diego, he worked as an engineer in the manhood-crushing Cubicle Drone day jobs he satirized in Office Space. Meanwhile, he tried to make it as either a bass guitarist or an animator. He told the LA Daily News:

By the time I was pushing 30, I”€™d had so many job and had always been the employee. Then, suddenly, Beavis and Butt-head happened and I had 30 to 90 people working for me and I just became very sympathetic to my old bosses.

So, the self-financed Extract is, intentionally, the flip side of Office Space, a sympathetic portrayal of the kind of technically skilled white male businessman who is still largely responsible for creating our society’s wealth.

Judge’s subtle Red State Republican sympathies (he lives in Texas, where he shoots his movies, and commutes to LA for his television shows only when necessary) raised the hackles of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. Her review of Extract showed she is still peeved about Idiocracy. She harrumphed about how Judge just isn”€™t subtle enough to understand “€œthe complexities of class and representation”€ (unlike, say, Dargis, an English Lit major from Purchase College, SUNY).

In Extract, Joel, the founder of a factory that manufactures food-flavoring extracts, is played by Jason Bateman of Arrested Development. This former child actor’s career is starting to resemble Josh Brolin’s, another show biz scion who, as he neared 40, unexpectedly turned into a star worth keeping an eye out for.

As a kid, Joel wondered why root beer-flavored cookie dough tastes better than freshly baked root beer cookies. When majoring in chemistry, he learned that high temperatures degrade the molecules, which got him to thinking up better artificial flavorings for baked goods. This life story has brought him a BMW, a nice house with a pool, and the boredom of everybody he knows, including his wife (Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live), who hasn”€™t had sex with him in three months.

In his malaise, Joel considers the advice of his C.F.O. (J.K. Simmons, who is funny in everything, even Burn After Reading) to sell the company to General Mills so he can retire from riding herd on his ungrateful and accident-prone employees.

Then, a minor bit of assembly line sabotage sets off a series of mishaps victimizing a good old boy worker who loses a testicle; a seductive conwoman (Mila Kunis of That 70s Show) who talks the walking woundee into turning down Joel’s insurance settlement and hiring a sleazebag contingency fee lawyer (bassist Gene Simmons of KISS) who intends to drive the company into liquidation; Joel’s pill-peddling bartender (Ben Affleck, settling down to a career as a good supporting actor who looks like a bad leading man); and a gigolo. Every character is well-cast, especially Clifton Collins Jr., a half-Mexican actor from Los Angeles who once again just vanishes into his role, this time as the maimed redneck who helps Joel finally figure out what he wants to do with his life.

Idiocracy was criticized for sloppy plotting (which I”€™m not sure much matters in a comedy”€”Caddyshack‘s narrative, for example, isn”€™t exactly a thing of beauty, but Americans have been quoting the movie for three decades). Perhaps in response, Extract is surprisingly well-tooled, with an efficient plot that gets the movie over and done with in just 89 minutes, although it’s never as howlingly funny as Idiocracy‘s best bits.

Extract shows that Judge can turn out good, inexpensive movies that embody a conservative worldview seldom seen in Hollywood fare. What Judge now needs are financial backers who will let him make his modest but subversive movies at a faster clip than two or three per decade.

Consider Woody Allen as a potential role model for Judge’s future career. Allen has been churning out a movie per year since the late 1960s. Woody is somewhat overrated by the critics and by the Academy (who have tossed him a record-setting 21 Oscar nominations) because he shares their cultural presumptions. Like Judge, though, Allen doesn”€™t overrate himself. He doesn”€™t burn himself out with Apocalypse Now-scale ambitions. As he’s repeatedly said, “€œEighty percent of success is just showing up,”€ and Woody shows up every single year.

Allen’s investors know that Woody, a self-disciplined tightwad, won”€™t burn them too badly. They expect they”€™ll probably lose a million or two in return for the bragging rights of helping Woody Allen make another movie, but they figure they won”€™t lose too much more than that.

Red State zillionaires looking to have a positive impact on our culture could do much worse things with their money than to back Judge the way Blue Staters have backed Allen over the years. Instead, however, they pour money into conventional charities or do things like give $265 million to the Oklahoma State athletic department, as oilman T. Boone Pickens has done in the hopes of buying a national college football championship.

Fine, but Red State moneymen should keep in mind that out-bribing each other for the best high school athletes is a zero sum game, while changing the culture is not.


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