There’s something about Mike Judge’s work that I find consistently endearing. It may, I imagine, have something to do with not having had cable during the early-to-mid ’90s or so, when Beavis and Butt-Head was stirring up sprays of ripe, come-hither controversy, and — despite hearing raves about the strange-sounding show from frothy schoolmates — not being able to glimpse it but once in a while, in precious snatches at Brady Burbacher’s house. (Brady was my best friend. He had a Super Nintendo, too. Life was good.)
(Quick aside — Dear Mom: I honestly can’t quite remember whether I was allowed to watch Beavis and Butt-Head in those days; if not, I’m sorry, I watched it at Brady Burbacher’s house. At least once or twice. Please don’t blame him or his mom — I’m guessing I probably didn’t inform them of the situation. Love you.)
Then, of course, there’s the quietly brilliant Tex-centric satire of King of the Hill. Frankly, it took me a while to realize how truly great it is. Even now, admittedly, I don’t get the addict’s itch for it like I sometimes do for The Simpsons or The Critic (or, if I’m practicing full disclosure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but Judge’s Lone Star lampoonery is every inch as intelligent as that lofty company — and generally a sight
Absent his instantly identifiable line drawing and central voicework, Judge’s live-action films are something of a different experience. Their creator’s presence may — may — seem perhaps a shade less palpable, but then, “showy” has never seemed his style. Judge excels at telling small, grounded, relatable stories (sci-fi cult favorite Idiocracy aside), and infusing them with truth-based, recognizable humor.
So it is with Extract, in which an upwardly mobile factory worker (Collins Jr.) gets a ball lopped off by an industrial mishap, and said factory’s owner (Bateman) hires a slacker-y, dumb-as-a-hammer gigolo (Milligan) to tempt his own wife (Wiig) with indiscretion as part of a harebrained scheme to make nice with the new, cleavage-displaying intern (Kunis), who might also be an itinerant con artist.
See, that’s kind of Judge’s thing, though, mixing the bigger, wacky stuff in and presenting it as matter-of-factly as the less absurd stuff, so that you more or less forget that, for example, “small, realistic” Office Space begins in earnest with, essentially, a fluke brainwashing via botched hypnotism (the hypnotist dies mid-session!) and ends with a torched office building as deus ex machina (a justified one, but one nonetheless).
It’s a balance, and Extract, like Office Space before it, pulls it off, thanks, in part, to some savvy casting. The film is anchored admirably by Bateman, who —like forebears Ron Livingston and Hank Hill — is called upon to play the funny, vaguely bewildered everyman — a part which, in lesser hands, might have become merely a wan and whiny straight man. Bateman, though, absolutely nails it; his performance serves as the audience’s touchstone, and is a comedic highlight, besides. Also inspired is the choice of Ben Affleck as Bateman’s presumably well-meaning (but ill-advising) barkeep pal — drug pusher, pied piper, Seattle-grunge-band-hair sporter. As the crying shoulder who introduces the male-hooker idea (and then slips our protagonist the inadvertently too-strong downer that somehow makes it seem reasonable), Affleck has probably never been more hilarious. Milligan, as the dimbulb Don Juan, provides a bright spot or two as well. Collins Jr., is a favorite, and though I prefer his heavier work so far, I’m always happy to see him onscreen. Wiig, when let loose, is a genius, but I’m not sure anyone’s quite figured out how to do that in a feature yet.
Judge’s work is funny, but it’s more than that; there’s something familiar and uncluttered, yet off-kilter about the way he tells a story that generally feels comfortable, even when it isn’t gut-busting. His uniquely unassuming way of blending subtle and unsubtle comedy makes his tales feel light, but true. I think. I still haven’t figured it out, but I expect I’ll be open to everything he has to offer from here on out.