A TASTY COMEDY WITH SOME BITE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Extract" is an exuberant original. This daft farce about a man who has founded and run a successful flavor extract company and lost the sexual attention of his wife is a workplace film like no other and one of the best comedies of the year.

The film has sharper testicle jokes than all of the Judd Apatow gang's recent farces put together, a poolside seduction that's organic and uproarious, and a streak of stoner-slacker humor that's like repeated hits from a bong that's actually good for you.

If those accolades have a primal ring to them, it's because writer-director Mike Judge, who a decade ago made the ultimate cubicle movie, "Office Space," brings the brains of a satirical biologist to his view of life on a bottling line and in all the office nooks and crannies - and trailer parks and upscale suburbs - surrounding it. If the movie doesn't surge with unabated potency like classic screwball comedy, it's got its own erratic snap, crackle and pop. And the ensemble (including Jason Bateman as company owner Joel Reynold and Kristen Wiig as his wife, Suzie) is seamless even when the action isn't.

Judge views the human components of an extract plant as one living organism and applies equal comic force to each individual cell. Everyone from a hair-netted veteran (Beth Grant) who mutters about the new Hispanic employee (Javier Gutierrez) to the forklift operator (T.J. Miller) whose mind is on his five rock bands (or maybe four; two contain the same musicians) makes his presence felt on your funny bone. The movie is ripely humorous about rumors of corporate deals generating paranoia among workers. General Mills has an eye on Reynold's Extracts. As we all know by now: Employees beware.

Judge is also vigilant about the greed of middle management, such as Joel's lieutenant, Brian (J.K. Simmons), who doesn't know anyone's name and refers to all workers as "dinkus." It turns out that Joel's key employee is Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), the master bottle-sorter who dreams of being floor manager. When he suffers a freak accident at the plant, he also becomes Joel's crucial ally or antagonist, capable of messing up the deal with General Mills if he takes him to court.

Even more critical to the plot is the fleet-fingered new temp, Cindy (Mila Kunis), who casts covetous eyes on Joel and Step. Joel is so ready for action that he believes Cindy when she says food flavoring fascinates her. But he'll pursue an affair only if he can be sure that Suzie would enter an illicit liaison herself. The key to the movie's humor is that Joel is simultaneously decent and confused: He's willing to pay for his own cuckoldry. An elusively amiable bartender named Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel's best friend, connects him with a gigolo named - what else? - Brad. He will pose as a pool man and make as much whoopee with Suzie as she will permit.

Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, everything about this detour into nouveau riche erotic angst is as resonant as the main narrative line. Judge taps Bateman's uncanny ability to convey the hidden corners of rage and lust in a normally mild-mannered and always good-hearted guy. (Bateman is a perfect match for Wiig, a master of furtive looks, tones and gestures.) And Affleck, almost unrecognizable under a gnarly mop of hair, offers a view of stoner hedonism that ranks with Jeff Bridges' as the Dude in "The Big Lebowski." He's hilarious when he introduces himself as "entrepreneur, spiritualist and healer."

One upshot of these shenanigans is that Joel fails to keep his eye on his company. And the audience realizes how important his commitment to it has been, for the well-being of his employees and of Joel himself. Bateman is by no means the funniest performer in the film. As Brad, Dustin Milligan performs miracles with a halting, out-of-it delivery - just as David Koechner does with a garrulous, out-of-it delivery as a pushy neighbor, and Gene Simmons does with a ferociously on-target delivery as a barracuda lawyer.

Still, it's Bateman who holds it all together, just as Joel holds the company together. No matter how dysfunctional it seems, Reynold's Extracts runs, at its best, like a well-oiled machine - and Joel Reynold's own enlightened care provides the lubricant. "Extract" has the sanest view of labor and management of any movie in decades.

MPAA rating: R (for language, sexual references and some drug use)

Running time: 1:31

Starring: Jason Bateman (Joel Reynold), Mila Kunis (Cindy), Kristen Wiig (Suzie), Ben Affleck (Dean), J.K. Simmons (Brian), Clifton Collins Jr. (Step) and Dustin Milligan (Brad).

A Miramax release. Directed by Mike Judge.

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