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
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.