Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 11:33 am 
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Working class meets sleazy

This is a comedy centered on a factory, not a common setting in Hollywood or in America for that matter, where the phrase "working class" is almost as forbidden and tainted as "socialism." Since the material is somewhat dangerous it's perhaps not surprising that the film most cozies up to the young owner of the business, Joel (Jason Bateman). From there on down the social line we descend into caricature, beginning with the manager, Brian (J.K. Simmons, not quite at his best), who can't remember employees' names and calls them all "dinkus."

Joel is a bland, decent man; he does know the employees' names. But he's working too hard and has been coming home too late, and his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has been withholding sex from him. Joel has a charming friend, Dean (Ben Affleck), who tends bar and is his dubious advisor. Bateman is watchable as ever but it's Affleck who surprises because in beard and long hair, he not only looks different, but is surprisingly comfortable in a new kind of role. Dean gets Joel high on liquor and horse tranquilizer (it was meant to be Xanax) and is able to convince him, in this state, to hire a young stud to seduce his wife. Her cheating on him, Dean argues, will justify Joel's playing around -- and Joel has admitted he's found a temptation. She's Cindy (Mila Kunis of "That 70's Show" and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, quite vivid here), someone far sleazier (and even sexier) than Dean, a thief and con artist who comes to work at the factory mostly for plot reasons. Why would she want to be on the line turning out food extracts when she can carry four thousand dollar guitars out of shops without paying for them? But she has something in mind.

The good-looker Dean brings in to seduce Joel's wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) is Brad (Dustin Milligan), a total dunce. This film is from the directorial pen of the maker of Dumb and Dumber and Office Space and TV's "Beavis & Butt-Head," which some regard as more entertaining (I haven't seen them).

The factory scene is not pretty, though it may contain truth. Two older women sit and gossip and resent new hirees who are Latino. A young man with a questionable haircut, tattoos, and piercings (T.J. Miller) touts his band, named "God's Cock." He considers his music, not the fork lift, his true calling. The old ladies are constantly allowing the production line to block up whenever something they don't like happens, and this finally leads to a Rube Goldbergesque disaster of sufficient proportions to deprive the would-be floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) of one testicle.

Cindy conceives the notion of cozying up with Step and luring him into hiring crapola lawyer Joe Adler (KISS star Gene Simmons) to sue the company for him for millions, instead of just accepting an insurance settlement, planning to cash in herself in the bargain. And meanwhile Joel and Brian (why are these names so neutral?) are working on selling the factory to a big conglomerate, and when the workers find out they threaten a strike to get a cut. No one on the floor has an IQ over 70, or any higher ideas about working conditions or wages.

This is how the factory people are in Extract, dumb, mean, and greedy. Dumb and dumber.

But this is still too good-hearted and ably constructed a comedy for all that to seem ugly, and after all, once he's had some horse tranquilizer, big rich capitalist Joel, who's really just a hard worker who got lucky, can be pretty dumb himself. He's also a decent owner who's accessible to his employees. The really loathsome character is not a factory worker or friend of Joel, but a neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner). But he's not loathsome so much as simply intolerably, menacingly boring. He never stops talking, invading Joel's and his wife's space to insist they sign up for a Rotarian dinner with him and his wife. He meets a suitable, and "surprisingly tasteful" end. Nathan is the only point where Judge introduces a minor character nightmarish enough to leap off the screen and into your face.

But Extract is still not the kind of comedy you want to be too hard on -- not when the likes of World's Greatest Dad is in theaters. It's just that its limits are set by Bateman's blandness, which define proceedings as humane but unmemorable. My own unfortunate comparison was with the Miguel Arteta-Mike White film, The Good Girl, which being set in a nowhere big box store draws from a similar demographic for its cast but perhaps to its benefit has no one as posh as Joel on the scene. The Good Girl is not a great movie, but it contains more originality and imagination in its vision of working class desolation. Mike White can never resist pushing things toward the absurd and weird, and this time it worked, with Deborah Rush, Tim Blake Nelson, Jake Gyllenhaal, even Jennifer Anniston coming in for a number of insanely kooky moments.

Extract is a well-oiled machine, seamlessly interweaving its plot lines and characters. You can have a good time with it, but it never achieves moments as droll as some in The Good Girl. And as a depiction of factory life, it has moments of truth but not enough depth.

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