All the way back to "Beavis & Butt-Head," Judge's work has been worth tracking; those nattering couch potatoes' play-by-play commentaries remain miracles of stoner humor and minimalist music criticism. Every time I come across "King of the Hill," I'm struck anew at how cleverly Judge turns his fellow Texans into caricatures -- good ones -- and then back into real-world characters again, sometimes in the space of five seconds.
Ten years ago, Judge made his feature directorial debut with "Office Space," which caught a "Dilbert"-created wave of drone-level corporate resentment and rode it to a long and profitable post-theatrical afterlife (though it bombed in theaters). "Extract" is a bookend to "Office Space." In many ways, I prefer it. The plotting is deceptively clever, the jokes are plentiful and off-center enough to keep things fresh, no matter how antiseptically drab the settings are -- and it's time we recognize just how shrewd an actor we have in Jason Bateman, best known for " Arrested Development."
A study in modulated frustration (he's a mellower Jack Lemmon), Bateman plays Joel Reynold of Reynold's Extracts, a firm producing vanilla and root beer and cookies 'n' cream flavors in a little factory staffed by various strays and losers. An industrial accident leaves one of his employees (Clifton Collins Jr.) down one testicle. (You may as well know what you're in for, though Judge's humor here is more character-based than gross-out-minded.) If the worker sues the company, at the behest of a dishy con artist (Mila Kunis) working as a temp, it's curtains for the operation. Meantime, Joel's medium-cool marriage is knocked for a loop when he finds he can't stop thinking about Cindy, the scammer, who is introduced in a very funny opening scene set in a music store with two clerks she wraps around her little finger while robbing them blind.
Joel deals with his lust-in-his-heart condition in classic passive-aggressive fashion: He hires the world's dimmest gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his graphic-designer wife ( Kristen Wiig) so he can dally with a clear conscience. All this is brokered by his bartender pal down at the Marriott. He is played, with Jesus hair and beard, by Ben Affleck, who has never been looser, or better.
Bateman's Everyman guides the ins and outs of "Extract" with the kind of subtlety many people overlook in favor of broader strokes. This isn't a farce, and Bateman's performance isn't pitched that way. Judge doesn't really know what to do with the camera, and, certainly, you wish Wiig (who's awfully good) had another scene or two to flesh out her role. But the writer-director has a knack for middle-class concerns (though his protagonist is decidedly upper-middle-class), and even when he sets them up for ridicule, it's not the sort of condescending ridicule that curdles after a half-hour. It's a higher grade of ridicule, maintaining one foot in the real world. Even familiar types, like the clueless gas-baggy neighbor played by David Koechner, pay off, partly because Koechner doesn't overplay it, and partly because Judge provides a nice, unexpected bit of punctuation.
Is the movie about anything? I suppose so. It's about a milquetoast whose decency outweighs his weaselly temptations. It's about first-rate, off-the-cuff ensemble acting. And if you set your expectations correctly, it's about 10 to 15, maybe 20 laughs -- not the blockbuster kind, but sly and wry and a little bit truthful.