When I look back over the 2009 summer blockbuster season, which is now officially over, it's not the gut-busters that I'm eager to see again or that I'm recommending ( with the vivid exception of District 9, which only really fits in the category in retrospect; it's like "the little blockbuster that could" ) .
For me, it's the "little" movies that sprouted up between the behemoths that have given sustained pleasure this summer. To this slate of winning pictures500 Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, Julie & Julia and Taking WoodstockI am happy to add Extract, the first comedy from writer-director Mike Judge since 2006's Idiocracy.
Extract follows the good but predictable life of Joel ( Jason Bateman ) , the owner/operator of a small extract-flavoring plant as he deals with a number of pesky employee problems at work and tries to figure out a way to reignite his sex life with his wife, Suzie ( SNL's Kristen Wiig ) . Joel turns to his loopy bartender friend, Dean ( Ben Affleck ) , for a solution. Dean, who offers sage advice while chewing on Tums for a nervous condition, comes up with a nutty scheme that Joel quickly jumps at. Dean enlists another customer, Brad ( Dustin Milligan ) , a blond tanned twink who looks as if he stepped out of '80s gay-porn films and works as an amateur escort, to pose as the new pool boy, seduce Suzie once and break things off. Suzie, Dean theorizes, will naturally then feel so guilty she'll jump back into bed with Joel. Brad, who is almost as stupid as the dumb stud played by Bill Paxton in Ruthless People, quickly agrees and Joel, horny to the point of distraction, pays the freight that sets the scheme in motion.
As this scenario is playing out, word leaks out that Joel and his hard-assed manager ( J.K. Simmons ) are in talks to sell the plant. Then Joel is completely distracted when Cindy ( Mila Kunis ) , a gorgeous con woman, enters his life. Cindy quickly moves from a pseudo-relationship with Step ( Clifton Collins, Jr. ) , Joel's injured employee, to making a play for Joel himself. Primed for an affair ( "How often am I going to meet a girl that's pretty and into food flavoring?" he wonders ) and with problems stacking up like the boxes of flavoring extract when the employee's stage a walk-out, Joel's world seems to be falling apart.
But Joel, open-hearted and fair-minded though he is, isn't exactly anybody's fool and, surprisingly, Judge's viewpoint isn't nearly as cynical as Payne's ( or Judd Apatow's, for that matter ) . Although Judge's script once again traffics in his trademarkfinding humor in the mundane, such as the little tics and annoying habits that drive people batshit ( many of the laughs come from the recognition factor in the audience ) he's never purposefully mean-spirited. He just loves pointing out stupidity when he encounters it and does so hilariously ( his payoff to a running joke with an obnoxious neighbor played with relish by David Koechner is a highlight here ) .
Extract is, in many ways, an updated riff on those "wacky" wife-swapping/Walter Mitty daydreamer comedies that were rife in the '60sstuff like How to Murder Your Wife, Good Neighbor Sam and A Guide for the Married Man. ( So many were released in the swingin' '60s these movies became a genre unto themselves. ) From bad to sublime, they always featured crack comedic actors in the supporting roles and most were carried by leading men like Jack Lemmon known for their Everyman qualities. Judge's cannily chosen supporting cast and his star are another link to these movies.
Bateman's specialty ( and it's a very winning one ) is his ability to get along with anyoneto play the moderator and the arbitrator between a lot of cranky, eccentric personalitiesand be the guy whose job it is to relay the bad news, take the heat and put the positive spin on things. He usually plays a variation of this kind of character, an archetype that provided his breakout in the defunct though critically adored black-comedy sitcom "Arrested Development." He is handsome but not too handsomea realist with an innate kindness which helps to soften him in the eyes of his audience. Usually cast in supporting roles himself, his first appearance in a movie always makes me perk up and, in Extract, Bateman proves that he can carry a movie as expertly and effortlessly as Judge can write and direct them.
One of the earliest documentaries about gay life in America, the marvelously unfussy Word Is Out is playing twice this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State on Saturday, Sept. 5 at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 6, at 3 p.m. This compelling film is shepherded by the queer filmmaker Peter Adair ( who died from AIDS in 1996 ) , who oversaw five others collectively known as the Mariposa Film Group. The movie features interviews with 26 people ( ranging in age from 18 to 77 ) living in locales as far flung as San Francisco and Boston whose lives and professions are as diverse as those of any randomly selected 26 folks might be. The linking devicethat these "normal folks" just all happened to be gay and lesbianwas an eye-opener to much of the country when the movie was originally released in theatres and shown on public television in 1978. Subtitled "Stories of Our Lives," the movie was an enthralling experience when I first saw it, and it remains so.
The Siskel Film Center is showing a restored 35mm print of the documentary as part of a touring series entitled "UCLA Film & Television Archive's 14th Festival of Preservation." The series, which runs Sept. 4-30, includes a wide range of restored, little-seen and fascinating films and documentaries in its 14 programs, including film noirs, indies ( Cassavetes and Sayles ) , and even some silents. This series is highly recommended; see www.siskelfilmcenter.org .
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.