Posted: September 09, 2009
Dave on film: Snappy dialogue makes “Extract” a little sweeter
Predictable plot, shallow characters -- but plenty of laughsBy Dave Taylor
This week I've got one film to talk about, a funny movie in the theater about blue-collar workplaces. We should also wave goodbye to the summer blockbuster, because, well, all those kids with their disposable income are back in school now. There were some great films this summer, but a lot of flops, too. Just another year from Hollywood, right?
Can an entirely predictable storyline with snappy dialog and an amusing setup produce a film that's worth watching? With most directors, the answer would be no, but Mike Judge, who mastered the nuances of everyday conversation and situations with the hit Office Space, has accomplished just that in the new comedy Extract.
Part of what I like to see in movies is the gradual unveiling of the story, but, frustratingly, Extract is not that sort of film. We know within the first 60 seconds that Cindy (Mila Kunis) is a grifter, a con artist who drifts from scam to scam. For me, though, the opening scene is one of the funniest in the movie precisely because I didn't really know what was going on until the hustle was revealed.
Extract is centered on the fictional Reynold's Extract manufacturing plant that produces vanilla, cherry, almond, root beer and similar food flavorings. Located in an unspecified small midwestern town, the plant is owned and run by Joel (Jason Bateman), with the assistance of general manager Brian (J.K. Simmons). When an industrial accident injures floor foreman Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), the company hires temps, one of whom is the gorgeous Cindy.
The real strength of the movie isn't the predictable unfolding of events, however, but the wry and constantly amusing dialog between the characters, even if it requires that each be a shallow caricature. Stand outs in the supporting cast include the caustic line worker Mary (Beth Grant) and the stoic Hector (Javier Gutiérrez) who seems to only barely understand what's going on.
More and more bad things happen to Joel, but the most we see him do is surprise his employees by yelling at them and walking off the factory floor. Then, rather than having even a down moment, he immediately starts to pull his life back together, with a bit of coaching and help from his long-time pal Dean (Ben Affleck).
Dean is actually the cause of much of the trouble in Joel's life, particularly with his great zeal for drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise, as a cure for troubles and stress. In one scene, Dean waxes poetic about the prescription tranquilizer Xanax, saying "Xanax? It just basically makes you feel good, man." Later, Dean convinces Joel to smoke some marijuana and then have what seemed a lot more like a reaction to psychedelics than grass.
That scene in particular felt a bit out of place in the movie to me, but your experience may vary.
The drug-peddling tavern owner Dean is an interesting role for Ben Affleck and you can see that he relishes the chance to be a lowlife slacker. Problem is, as with all the other people that appear in Extract, he's a caricature, not a fully-developed character, which leaves the audience wondering why successful businessman Joel listens to him time and again, even as each of his suggestions is clearly going to backfire.
Ultimately, I realize that Extract is a situational comedy and, like a TV sitcom, the setups are necessary so that the funny situations and snappy lines can be delivered to an appreciative audience. I did laugh during the film, but I was left wanting just a bit more from Judge and his splendid cast.
Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.