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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


What I love about Mike Judge is the specificity of his work. Think about Beavis and Butthead. We all know those kids. (I went to high school with them.) In his cult classic Office Space, Judge astutely observed every annoying little detail about cubicle life, from irritating co-workers to broken fax machines to nonsensical paperwork. While he may exaggerate things for comic effect, the basis of his humor always lies in some form of truth. Judge's newest work, Extract, has a lot of the things you'd expect, yet doesn't represent its creator's best work. Some genuinely fine material is hampered, surprisingly, by the fact that the movie doesn't seem to have much of a perspective on its own subject matter.

Annoying neighbor David Koechner is the least of Jason Bateman's problems in the comedy Extract.
Jason Bateman stars as Joel, the owner of an extract plant. As we meet him, Joel is experiencing some pretty intense sexual frustration, as his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) repeatedly stymies his advances. When a sexy young woman named Cindy (Mila Kunis) starts working at the plant and flirts with him, Joel finds himself fighting temptation. His bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) proposes that he hire a gigolo to seduce Suzie so that he could have a fling with Cindy guilt-free. Joel takes him up on the offer, then regrets it when the gigolo - a hall-of-fame dumbass named Brad (Dustin Milligan) - keeps coming around for more.

This is a pretty humorous scenario, and Extract certainly has fun playing with it. However, there's another angle to the story. Joel does not realize that Cindy is actually a con artist who is trying to convince injured plant worker Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) to reject the settlement Joel is offering and instead sue him for millions. KISS rocker Gene Simmons plays the lawyer Step hires, and it's a case of stunt casting that doesn't work because…well, Gene Simmons sucks as an actor. He's only capable of playing Gene Simmons.

It's hard to say what Judge is getting at here. On the surface, Extract seems to be about sexual frustration and how it causes desperation that leads sufferers to make bad life decisions. That's a perfectly Judge-ian concept, and indeed the movie is at its best when it's going down that road. It's a compliment to say that Judge has required his actors to underplay their roles. Everyone here is very low-key, which allows them to avoid caricature. The tone of the film itself is equally low-key; played incorrectly, Extract could seem like a lame sex comedy rather than the observation of human nature it wants to be.

Of course, that low-key vibe also means that you may not always be sure what you're supposed to be laughing at. On "Beavis and Butthead" and in Office Space, you knew what Mike Judge was ridiculing: oblivious, undereducated teenagers and the soul-deadening quality of office life, respectively. His more obscure work Idiocracy was a rant against the dumbing-down of society. Extract, meanwhile, is so low-key and unassuming that I'm at a loss to know what Judge thinks about sexual frustration. Sure, it's no fun to experience, but then what? The plot's climax seems tacked on, as though Judge didn't know what point he wanted to make and didn't know how to wrap things up. It's hard to earn big laughs unless your viewpoint on a topic is really crystal clear.

The movie's other, related downfall is that the whole plot thread about Cindy being a con artist doesn't really fit in. Could she have been played as a troubled young woman? Of course - the story doesn't need her plotting to extort money to do that. It would have been much more interesting for her to have some depth, to be significantly less than the dream girl Joel imagines her to be. Whenever we see Cindy pulling Step's strings or trying to pull off some scam, it seems like it's coming out of left field. The con artist angle feels forced.

On the plus side, the ensemble cast is great. Jason Bateman captures Joel's frustration without ever overdoing it. Ben Affleck turns in a surprisingly good comic performance as the ethereal buddy who never fails to give Joel bad advice. Dustin Milligan is really good too, as someone so dumb, he makes Butthead look like John Forbes Nash. And it's the always-reliable David Koechner who steals the show as Joel's annoying neighbor - one of those people who always seem to be waiting to draw you into a long conversation the minute you pull into the driveway. (I had one of those once when I lived in an apartment building. Many were the times I tried to silently make my way up the staircase and unlock my door without being heard.)

On the whole, I would say that Extract is more amusing than "funny." It was a weird experience. I sat in my seat, feeling involved in the movie. I wasn't looking at my watch, or rolling my eyes, or fidgeting, as I often do when a picture isn't working for me. On the other hand, I didn't really laugh out loud either. It was more like a series of occasional chuckles. I didn't dislike Extract by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not necessarily the kind of movie that's worth going out of your way to see, especially at full price. As a believer in the magic of a movie theater, I've never completely bought into the "wait for DVD" concept, but it applies here. Put Extract on your Netflix queue, so that you just have to walk to your mailbox to see it. On those smaller-scale terms, this will make for a decent rental, just to admire the performances and the tiny on-point observations.

( 1/2 out of four)

Extract is rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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