Substituting blue-collar blunderers for "Office Space's" white-collar workhorses, "Extract" distills meager laughs from a strange story about a cheating wife, a wily thief, a severed testicle and a hapless factory owner juggling all of the above. Mike Judge's third bigscreen outing finds the always interesting writer-director working in a softer, less spoofy mode than usual and, a few colorful supporting characters aside, doesn't show his comedic instincts at their sharpest. But as his first film granted the dignity of a proper wide release, the Sept. 4 opener could bottle modest-to-solid returns on the names of Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck.
Indeed, after the poor theatrical fortunes that befell 1999's "Office Space" (which happily rebounded as a cult fave on homevid) and 2006's underrated futuristic farce "Idiocracy," it's hard not to wish the best for "Extract." It's also hard not to wish Judge's script, having grounded its characters in a normal workaday setting -- a flavor-extract factory proudly run by Joel Reynold (Bateman) -- had chosen to use that setting as its primary comic motor, in the manner of "Office Space."
Initially, this does seem to be Judge's intent. After all, employee incompetence and complacency are to blame for the horrible (and amusingly staged) assembly-line accident that causes wannabe floor manager Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) to almost become a soprano -- and not the New Jersey kind. The setback couldn't come at a worse time for Joel, a hard-working, mild-mannered guy who's trying to sell the business, and whose own nether regions are turning blue from the chronic neglect of his chilly wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig).
Enter the factory's newest hire, Cindy, who -- as played by "Forgetting Sarah Marshall's" Mila Kunis -- is such a smokin' hottie, especially compared with her co-workers, that she immediately triggers adulterous longings in Joel. Egged on by his best friend, bartender Dean (Affleck, long-haired and laid-back), and with the help of some strong tranquilizers, Joel enlists good-looking dimwit Brad (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie, which will assuage Joel's guilt and free him to pursue Cindy -- who, it's revealed early on, has her own slippery agenda.
In zeroing in on a sexually frustrated small-business owner facing a major lawsuit, Judge means to wring humor from a familiar vein of American male discontent. To that end, he surrounds Joel with an assortment of rubes and grotesques, the most memorable of which is his nightmarish neighbor Nathan (David Koechner), a balding, bespectacled irritant who never knows when to shut up or go away. Pitting Koechner's passive-aggressive drone against Bateman's Mr. Nice Guy, these agonizingly protracted sequences are the only ones that go beyond funny into squirm-inducing.
Where "Extract" does succeed is in creating a factory environment so vivid, you can almost smell the vanilla. Well lensed by Tim Suhrstedt at a water-bottling plant in California's City of Commerce, these scenes are all the more gratifying for tackling a milieu not often seen onscreen. And while they don't get much screen time, Joel's employees -- from a heavily pierced rock-star wannabe (T.J. Miller) to a stubborn shrew who sees everyone's laziness but her own (Beth Grant) -- could inspire flashes of recognition among auds, wherever they work.
Otherwise, the pic's attempts at comic portraiture feel sketchy at best, more or less assigning each character a single, belabored trait -- Joel's supervisor (J.K. Simmons) refuses to remember his workers' names, Step's lawyer (Gene Simmons) is a showboating sleaze, etc.
And while "Office Space" and "Idiocracy" registered as howls of outrage at corporate culture and mass stupidity, respectively, "Extract" has little of their satirical energy or underlying anger. It skewers marriage, entrepreneurship and manual labor only to reaffirm them in the final stretch, and in a way that doesn't feel especially bighearted (like Judge's toon series "King of the Hill"), just soft-headed.
Bateman's likable straight-man routine proves reliably watchable, and while he and Affleck don't strike up much in the way of buddy chemistry, a shared scene of massive pot inhalation does score a direct hit. But the pic again shows Judge's difficulty writing female characters of substance (not that he's alone among male comedy scribes in that respect): Kunis is fine (in both senses) as a gold-digging seductress, but Wiig, so side-splitting in her throwaway appearances in "Knocked Up" and "Ghost Town," is given no such opportunities in an ostensibly meatier role.