Not to belabor the food metaphors — most film critics used them all up for “Julie & Julia,” anyway — but “Extract” resembles a cookie recipe that has no flour: Lots of tasty flavors, but nothing holds them together.
Writer-director Mike Judge’s third outing on the big screen demonstrates anew that he’s gifted at working with actors and with writing moments where recognizable human discomfort can be mined for laughs. Alas, while “Office Space” and “Idiocracy” were both funny movies that meandered somewhat messily toward their resolutions, “Extract” makes those earlier movies look like the very model of well-crafted comedy.
This time, Judge transfers his sympathies from labor (the white-collar office drones and waitresses of “Office Space”) to management, with Jason Bateman starring as Joel, a chemist and food-additives expert who built his extract factory from the ground up. He should be happy, what with General Mills on the verge of making a very lucrative offer for the business, but Joel finds himself juggling one disappointment after another.
His wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has become sexually withholding, neighbor Nathan (David Koechner) talks his ear off at the most inopportune moments, and his contentious factory staff is constantly letting their petty grievances with each other create havoc on the assembly line.
Things only get worse when sexy con artist Cindy (Mila Kunis) blows into town; she inspires thoughts of adultery in Joel while, unbeknownst to him, convincing one of his employees to sue Joel for the whole company after a workplace accident injures the worker in a very tender spot.
Judge keeps the laughs coming consistently — Joel’s Xanaxed-to-the-gills confidant Dean (a charmingly twitter-pated Ben Affleck) plies Joel with drugs and convinces him to hire a gigolo to seduce Suzie so Joel can pursue an affair with Cindy without guilt, factory supervisor Brian (J.K. Simmons) refers to all the employees as either “Dingus” or “Boy Genius,” an irritating person is literally scolded to death — but there’s no through-line to the movie.
Neither we — nor, apparently, Judge — cares if Joel actually saves his marriage or if he sells the factory, making the latter fall flat as an 11th-hour plot device. Characters and crises are introduced only to be dismissed summarily, and we’re left with a collection of sketches that amuse but don’t build on each other. The end result is like watching a greatest-hits reel of a sitcom you’ve never seen.
The cast is uniformly terrific — Bateman plays drug scenes for comedy better than anyone in “Finding Woodstock,” and even second bananas like the hilarious Beth Grant (as a factory gossip) and Dustin Milligan (as an extremely dopey man-whore) wring laughs out of their brief screen time.
In the end, “Extract” feels like a collection of note cards from the bulletin board of a gag writer who has no idea how to structure a plot. Judge is a brilliant chronicler of social absurdity, workplace humor and that uniquely American brand of doltishness, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to channel his observations into sharp storytelling.
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