For most of his career, writer-director Mike Judge has focused on ordinary Joes, starting with the young versions in "Beavis and Butt-Head," progressing on to propane salesman Hank Hill and his six-pack buddies on "King of the Hill," bored white-collar cubical workers in "Office Space," and the barely average G.I. of "Idiocracy" who becomes a genius courtesy of a 500-year nap that has him waking to a future ruled by dumb and dumber.
He's at it again in "Extract," a laid-back comedy of very modest means and an equally modest payoff that is concerned with a decent guy named Joel Reynold (Jason Bateman), who owns a small factory that specializes in making food extracts, those amber bottles of almond or vanilla or any number of other flavors used in the cakes and cookies Americans no longer bake.
We catch Joel when the business is doing well, despite a work crew of grumblers and gossips whose time on the production line is both the low and high point of their day. But the normally optimistic Joel is finding himself increasingly discontent -- with the wife (Kristen Wiig) who no longer sleeps with him and with the business that's starting to bore him.
A call from General Mills about a possible buyout of Reynold Extracts sets the stage for resolving half of his problems, and Dean, a very funny Ben Affleck as a local barkeep and Joel's best friend, has an idea for how to handle the other.
Much of the action, or inaction, in any Judge affair is built around an informal hangout for conversational laments. In "King of the Hill" it's the alley, where the guys congregate to smoke, drink beer and bitch, and in "Extract" it's the bar where a drug-slowed Dean with Jesus hair doles out shots and a string of bad advice.
Although Dean certainly helps things along, we all know going in that nothing comes easy for the Joels of the world, with this particular Joel in the process of being set up for a series of major league falls.
Things begin going south first at the company when an accident that begins with a few broken bottles escalates into a domino-falling chain of events that ultimately hits foreman wannabe "Step" (Clifton Collins Jr.) below the belt, hard. This is old-style slapstick, so even if you haven't caught the scene on the endless loop of promo ads that have been playing, you guess the painful punch line long before Step does.
Into this mess saunters the lovely Mila Kunis as Cindy, a knockout temp in tight jeans and tighter shirts, and in short order she's got Step filing a lawsuit and Joel thinking about cheating on his wife.
One of the trademarks of Judge's work is the way he lets his characters talk themselves into bad ideas -- it's a way for the filmmaker to play around with the notion of mutable morality. So Dean's suggestion that Joel hire a gigolo (Dustin Milligan) disguised as a pool man to seduce his wife Suzie so that he can cheat on her guilt-free makes perfect sense.
Things do not go well and soon Joel is spending all of his time untangling any number of problems at home and at work. It's pretty much up to our hero to solve things on his own, surrounded as he is by a slew of characters that test the lower limits of the IQ scale, which the filmmaker always treats with a kind of loving bemusement.
All of that makes for a lot of fertile comic ground. Yet while "Extract" is mildly amusing and a slice of a mostly working-class world that doesn't make it into comedy that much anymore, it's not completely convincing as a movie.
Judge knows how to work a small screen to maximum effect, particularly an animation-inspired one as he's done so well in "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill." But he still struggles with issues of scale when things need to play bigger, and with real actors who don't flow from his pen. The stories in particularly suffer when Judge moves beyond the half-hour format. Even "Office Space," his most successful film to date, works brilliantly in its first half sendup of cubicle life but falters in its second half when the plot bogs down.
Typical of the problem in "Extract" is David Koechner as Nathan, Joel's next-door neighbor, one of those obnoxiously maddening ones forever catching you at the worst possible moments and refusing to go away. Over time, Nathan's surprise attacks and rambling requests become more aggressive, more ill-timed and more hysterical.
Nathan works very well as a running gag, especially since Koechner has the type polished to a high gloss. But the gag itself doesn't hold up when it has to serve as a key plot point on which much turns.
So the end of "Extract," when it comes, is more a whimper than a bang. And that's not funny at all.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual references and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In general release