Tuesday, September 8, 2009
World’s Greatest Dad and Extract
By Elise Nakhnikian
Four decades into the age of identity politics, are middle-class white men finally just another beleaguered minority? That seems to be the message behind Extract and World’s Greatest Dad, dark comedies about men whose bland exteriors mask some pretty big problems.
Extract isn’t just dark; it’s downright dour. I used to think writer/director Mike Judge was an amiable social satirist, tossing foam-tipped darts at late-capitalist consumerism from a La-Z-Boy somewhere in middle America. Just look at Office Space, his 1991 debut and one of the best comedies ever made about the drudgery and daily humiliation of low-wage work in America.
Granted, Judge always liked to lampoon stupidity too. 2006’s Idiocracy may have aimed mostly at deserving targets like cable news networks and show-biz politicians, but it started with the elitist premise that the USA of the future has devolved into a failed circus-state because smart people stopped having babies while dumb people kept having lots, so over the years we just got too dumb to function. Beavis and Butt-head were a preliterate pair of stoners so dumb they could barely breathe, and none of the Hills in King of the Hill are exactly the brightest bulbs in the box.
But I always thought Judge loved even the dimmest of his characters – I know I do – so I was surprised by the snarky misanthropy of his latest movie. Our hero this time around is Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a small factory that makes food-flavoring extracts. Joel radiates disapproval of everyone around him, like the character Bateman played on Arrested Development. He may be as selfish and shortsighted as anyone else, but he thinks he’s smarter, more rational, and just all-around better. In short, he’s a self-righteous prig, though Bateman projects a tattered goodwill beneath the exasperation that makes you empathize with Joel even when you don’t like him.
Extract consists of two parallel stories, both of which putter along with the occasional burst of energy before petering out. In the first, Joel struggles to resist, then outwit Cindy (Mila Kunis), a gorgeous but predatory young woman. Cindy insinuates herself onto the floor of Joel’s factory and into his erotic dreams – which isn’t hard, since he’s obsessed with the sex he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) aren’t having.
The other half of the movie is about Joel’s factory. The eternally self-pitying Joel surveys his employees from an office perched over the assembly line or smiles tightly as his manager, Brian (J.K. Simmons) rolls his eyes about the incompetence of some “dinkus.” Whether they’re trying to make the factory run smoothly or trying to sell it, the two keep running up against the absurdly exaggerated idiocy of their employees, nearly every one of whom is lazy, incompetent, laughably grandiose, or all three at once. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but I just found the whole thing cynical and depressing.
There are a lot of stupid human tricks on display in World’s Greatest Dad too, but there’s also plenty of decency. Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), is a genuinely nice guy, though most of the other people he has to deal with are anything but – starting with his own son.
Writer/director Bob Goldthwait isn’t interested in straight realism here any more than he was in the standup routines that made him semi-famous in the ‘80s (he was that sloppy-looking guy with a high voice that kept cracking, as if he was stuck in eternal puberty). But this loose-limbed, oddly life-affirming story has some pretty funny things to say about the platitudes and false piety we tend to revert to when we talk about the dead.
Lance is a sweet but schlubby high school English teacher, who works at the school his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends. He’s also a frustrated novelist who gets his first break as a writer in a way he never imagined. When Kyle dies in a potentially embarrassing accident, Lance tries to protect his boy’s reputation by making it look like an intentional hanging and leaving a suicide note.
The note gets printed in the school paper and becomes hugely popular, and a cult springs up around Kyle. Goldthwait has fun with the deification of a nasty loner. The students soon start sporting Kyle tattoos and WWKD tee shirts, and the faculty talk about how “sweet” and “kind” he was.
There’s also a nicely developed subplot about Lance’s sickeningly sweet girlfriend and fellow teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) and their perfect colleague Mike (Henry Simmons), a touching one involving Kyle’s forlorn only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), and some funny bits about an Oprah-like talk show host, a high school “grief counselor,” a literary agent, and Bruce Hornsby (don’t ask).
But the heart of the movie is Williams, whose mercifully understated, affecting performance makes us care about a mousy man who finds the courage to follow his heart.