Release Date: Sept. 4
Director: Mike Judge
Writer: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons
Cinematographer: Tim Suhrstedt
Studio/Run Time: Miramax, 91 mins.
Mike Judge returns to the workplace
The new film from Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) is a welcome addition to this year’s short list of funny movies. The offbeat humor comes at a steady pace, and while it never really turns into outright hilarity, it nurses a warm buzz from beginning to end.
Jason Bateman plays Joel, the owner of a factory that makes extract—vanilla, for example—and he’s on the verge of selling his company to General Mills if he can just keep the basic entropy of the earth from tearing the place apart. For example: a Rube Goldbergian disaster on the factory floor ends with one worker’s nuts in a sling. Then an attractive con artist arrives to take advantage of whatever money may be available in such a situation. And Joel’s marriage has hit a rough patch without any specific reasons other than general dissatisfaction on both sides. His bartender, Ben Affleck, is the last guy he should take advice or pills from, but when your world is one shipment of extract away from disaster, it’s nice to go where everybody knows your name.
Bateman has long proven his skill at playing an ordinary guy surrounded by loose marbles, and he’s an unusually funny straight man, but in this film he also has excellent foils in Affleck, J.K. Simmons, and a host of character actors. Kristen Wiig is probably the film’s only underutilized asset, and her character is the thinnest of the bunch, but otherwise Judge does a nice job of filling the personal noise of his universe.
Though the plot of the film may be rough and disjointed at times, Judge draws such a bead on his characters that they’re a joy to watch no matter what shenanigans provide the big-screen excuse. This is especially surprising since the well that Judge returns to over and over again for comedic inspiration is the general stupidity of just about everybody. Somehow the jokes, even though they’re at someone’s expense, are balanced by a certain dignity that Judge affords even the dingiest characters. Joel himself is a good guy, but so is the man his factory inadvertently injures, and that’s the plight that Judge skewers and accepts at the same time. Regardless of our stations in life, our fortunes are tied. And even a good man can be tempted toward the dark side by a devious and beautiful woman; in this case, it’s the same woman targeting both men.
Dim as some of the characters are, they all behave according to their own consistent logic, a trait even rarer than intelligence in the average comedy. For example, when an affair causes a rift between Joel and his wife, he spends the next few nights in a motel, not because there’s any particularly good reason to set the film there but because that’s what might really happen. The setup for the story is nutty, but the responses of the characters are completely normal, which makes me think that people who call for Judge to tidy up his stories, give them a nice beginning, middle, and end, quicken the start, and juice the finale, are asking for something even less real than what he’s given us. It’s akin to asking him to draw Hank and Peggy Hill, the characters in his long-running TV series King of the Hill, with more detail and smoother edges. There’s something nearly perfect about the way Judge’s crude drawings capture the blank stare or horrified look on Hank’s face that no 3-D rendering would improve, and the same is true for the plots of his lumpy comedies. And although I’ve never been a fan of the way his live-action films look, the same argument applies. Plain as it is, the plain visual style of the film does capture the atmosphere of the workspace remarkably well.
And finally, it’s the much-maligned plot that holds some of Judge’s core ideas. It may exist primarily as a skeleton for jokes, but it’s also where we find the basic truth that, in this movie’s universe, climbing the corporate ladder is hard while slipping down is remarkably easy. Whether you’re at the top or the bottom, you can maintain your personal status quo only through steadfast defense of your turf. That’s not a radical statement, by any means, but it’s far less common in movies than you’d think, given that we’re a nation of many workers and few owners. When a gesticulating attack lawyer (played by Kiss bassist Gene Simmons) pays Joel a visit, the workers mistake him for a General Mills executive ready to take ownership of the place, and they rally to save their jobs from a corporate takeover. They’re wrong about the details (this guy wants to sue Bateman into bankruptcy, not takeover his company), but given the way mergers happen, it’s a distinction without a difference when your perspective is from the factory floor. The difference matters to Joel but not to a line manager who might lose his job in either scenario. That’s true in the real world, but it’s not usually mentioned in movies, which may be why the films of Mike Judge always feel a little off. But it may also be why they have a way of finding an audience gradually, well after they’ve left theaters.
Plus, they’re pretty funny.