In his scant but cult-addled filmography, director Mike Judge has earned quite the reputation as a satirical provocateur, starting with his live-action debut, the much beloved Office Space, a nasty-minded attack on corporate culture in all its forms and the deadening effect it has on the teeming masses of American workers. This was followed by the infinitely nastier and (to my mind, anyway), even funnier Idiocracy, a positively vindictive attack on what Judge perceives as the emerging crisis of the Idiot Class in American discourse: that as well-educated people become more and more aloof in their seriousness, there's nothing to prevent Fox News and its ilk, and the damnable rise of sensational "reality" entertainment from stamping out the last vestiges of intelligence in this country.

These films - the latter in particular - have earned Judge a not-completely fair reputation as a misanthrope, a filmmaker whose favorite pastime is to point out the flaws of everyone else in the world from a comfortable bastion of righteous superiority. While that impression may be the result of careless misreadings of what he's actually trying to argue with his comedies, I cannot help but find his newest, Extract to be something of a mea culpa, trying to work in a gentler, less confrontational mode without sacrificing the core of his worldview: that the way America is trending right now is good for nobody, least of all the many individuals being shoehorned into increasingly dull lives as a result of unchecked consumer culture. That said, Extract leaves itself open to the same kind of criticisms that the former did; but there is ultimately no accounting for taste, and if someone wants to ignore me and find Extract to be a wicked, bitter assault on how stupid everyone is who isn't Mike Judge or his cinematic alter ego, well, let them to their opinions.

For me, this film - while perhaps his least ambitious and almost certainly his least overtly hilarious - is a perfect late-summer tonic, a chill 90 minutes of decent people in indecent situations muddling about without ultimately doing any damage that can't be fixed. It is - dare I say it - a sweet little movie, a genial prod at the great problem facing comfortable people in late-stage capitalism: namely, that comfort carries with it a soul-destroying boredom.

Our hero is Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman, exquisitely typecast), the owner of Reynolds Extracts, a small food-flavoring company based in what appears to be southern California, but could be any moderate-sized suburb anywhere in the country. Years after building a company from nothing but some keen insights he developed in a college chemistry class, Joel has the whole package of the American dream: a big house with an ostentatious pool, an expensive car, a gorgeous wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and the promise of an impending sale to General Mills. Joel is also mostly displeased: the company is staffed by disengaged workers with all the skill and grace of baboons, and Suzie has shut herself off sexually, an iron wall of chastity represented by her omnipresent baggy sweatpants. Things start to come to a head when three things happen: one of his best workers, a drawling redneck named Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) gets a testicle blown off in a stupid accident; a gorgeous con artist currently named Cindy (Mila Kunis) worms her way into the company trying to weasel some money out of Step's misfortune; and in a horrible decision brought on by some might drugs provided by his blissed-out friend Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel has foolishly procured a beautiful and completely moronic gigolo named Brad (Dustin Milligan) to sleep with Suzie, on the grounds that it will free him up to have an affair of his own with Cindy.

We're securely in Sitcom Contrivance Land here, and every single character in the film (including Joel himself) is nothing but a packet of clichΓ©s; and yet Extract has the right rhythm and atmosphere that none of it comes across as insulting or smug. Conceptually, the film isn't terribly far from Office Space: a decent Everyman is surrounded by awful people who bring him down to their level. Except that Bateman is a vastly better actor than the game but somewhat vacant Ron Livingston, and the supporting characters in Extract are treated a whole lot more decently than they were in the earlier film. Yeah, pretty much everyone here is some degree of an asshole; but they're assholes who we can mostly identify with, except the shyster lawyer with the unspeakably terrifying hairpiece (Gene Simmons, in an flat-out brilliant cameo). There's a bit of asshole in all of us, seems to be Judge's argument, so let's not harp on other people being assholes, okay?

I think the key to understanding the film isn't to adopt Joel's POV at all; the film demands to be seen through the eyes of Dean, played by Affleck in a truly revelatory performance that almost certainly ranks as the actor's all-time best work. Be relaxed, don't make a big deal about shit, don't panic. This is an outstandingly mellow and low-key film, a marked rarity in American cinema (God knows, it's practically comatose next to the frantic, idea-packed Idiocracy), and Judge is a gifted enough filmmaker to let that laid-back energy sidle off the screen almost invisibly, infecting the viewer who comes the film sans preconceptions in a most pleasant if subtle manner.

All this comes with a hefty price tag, mind: the film is absolutely not "ha ha" funny (though there's a pot scene that probably qualifies for that description). It's more "heh, that's funny" funny: a knowing smile, the kind that comes when you suddenly recognise truth onscreen for a moment. It's a far cry from Office Space, which made high comedy out of the unmitigated tragedy of white collar labor (it's probably the only film I can name that gets literally breathtaking laughs by telling its target audience, almost in so many words, "your own personal life completely sucks, you know"); though I am certain that Extract will play very well to the Mike Judge cult on DVD - I ought to be certain, being in said cult - it's not anywhere near as much fun to watch. But it's still a more accurate than not observation of how a certain kind of life goes in America, filled with an easy charm that makes its ultimately harsh message - the pursuit of happiness as it currently works is sucking all the joy out of life - essentially painless and sweet on the way down.

7/10