Mike Judge is back at work

October 1, 2009

But his new film Extract is no Office Space, as Jim Ramey explains.

WORK--that curse we're all forced to live through for more and more hours each day--is a subject Hollywood cares so little for that when a movie is made about it, the film can either let us see ourselves through a new set of eyes or, as is more often the case, try to boringly explain why we devote so much of our lives to it.

Mike Judge's new movie, Extract, belongs sadly to the latter category.

And I do mean sadly. Ten years ago, Judge made one of the best American movies about work when he wrote and directed Office Space. That film's take on alienating workplaces, meathead bosses and desperate workers going so far as to commit crimes to end the monotonous life-drain of selling your own labor was a brilliant, funny and infinitely quotable movie.

But in an interview publicizing his newest movie, Judge makes his intentions clear. "I wanted to do something that was kind of a counterpoint to Office Space," he said to Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

More specifically, he intended to make a movie about how hard it is being the boss.

Jason Bateman plays a factory owner in Extract
Jason Bateman plays a factory owner in Extract

The movie is centered on Joel (Jason Bateman), who is tired of running his company, tired of his wife, tired of his neighborhood and tired of his employees, except for one. Cindy, played by Mila Kunis, immediately catches his wandering eye after she is hired.

Her seeming flirtation with him causes Joel to hatch a plan that will allow him to cheat on his wife with Cindy, and not feel any guilt over it. This scheme involves $200, an incognito yet daft male prostitute, and horse tranquilizers--certainly a plan only the boss would love.

When General Mills offers to buy Joel's flavor extract business, the double meaning of the film's title is made clear (get it, Extract from Extract?). He views this sellout as the big break that will set him up for the rest of his life, and the remainder of the movie is essentially Joel tossing and turning over whether or not he loves his wife and company.

For those who work for small companies, the buyout of a small business by a large corporation is something of which they are all too keenly aware. When big businesses "take over" small companies' operations, they tend to quickly implement a corporate culture that makes profit the only concern, and workers are the ones who feel the crunch--no matter how much loyalty they've shown in the past, nor how much pride they've taken in their work.

Review: Movies

Extract, written and directed by Mike Judge, starring Jason Bateman and Mila Kunis.

That aspect of workers' lives is not portrayed in this movie. In fact, the workers are portrayed as racist, dunderheaded, lazy, unfocused and greedy--even in a scene when employees at Joel's plant get wind of the possible sale to General Mills and stage a work stoppage to demand a share of the buyout.

The viewer can see at least a former sympathy with the workers expressed in this scene for the sole fact that it made it into the movie. But it is executed as yet another example of how Joel is plagued with more and more problems, and ends with Joel yelling at all the workers that they can be boss because he just can't stand the hassle anymore.

Judge proves here that the acute social satire he presented in Office Space has become jaded and obtuse in Extract. Surely someone who has been watching the news for the past year can see how workers could run even small businesses better than those who are currently at the wheel.

What a slap in the face it is to the workers at Republic Windows & Door in Chicago and Stella D'oro in New York City, not to mention those at General Motors, to say they couldn't do things better than their bosses.

This isn't to say that workers should be sanctified in movies and given halos. Racism, selfishness and thoughtlessness are real obstacles in the workplace.

But you are just as likely to encounter kindness, creativity and even solidarity, even at the most desperate of job sites. Certainly, there's a much more worthy movie to be made about life in a manufacturing plant than the neo-objectivism that Judge presents us with in this film.

The film is not without its funny moments. The scheme of a boss trying to sleep with an employee drags the movie down to truly uncomfortable levels at times, but a male-bonding bong session gone horribly wrong is a good reminder to Mike Judge fans that he can still be funny. And J.K. Simmons turns in another brilliant performance as a middle management scumbag who refuses to call the workers by their names.

But ultimately Extract fails because its heart is in the front office, not on the manufacturing line.

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