Men at Work: Finding Humor in Missteps (The New York Times)

By Dennis Lim

EVEN as a boy the filmmaker and animator Mike Judge had a hard time suspending disbelief when it came to the economic lives of fictional characters. “I remember just being annoyed when it seemed that everyone had endless cash and never had to work, while I always had lots of jobs,” he recalled in a telephone interview. His sister’s Nancy Drew books, in which the teenage heroine was forever jetting off to far-flung locations, were a particular source of irritation. “I’d say, ‘Where did she get the money for the plane ticket?’ ”

When Mr. Judge, 46, became a professional storyteller, this pet peeve developed from a literal-minded fixation into a sociological curiosity about the ways in which work runs our lives and shapes our identities.

“There are a lot of movies that show what people do for a living, but they’re detectives or assassins or high-end drug lords,” he said. “Maybe people are afraid the other stuff is boring. But I feel it’s always interesting to find out about a character through their job.”

Mr. Judge’s animated series “King of the Hill,” set to conclude its 13-season run on Fox next month, frequently delves into the work environments of its characters (including the no-nonsense hero, Hank Hill, a Texas propane salesman, and his wife, Peggy, a substitute Spanish teacher). And so did “Beavis and Butt-head,” the MTV cartoon that put Mr. Judge on the map, in which the two cretinous teenage antiheroes are unaccountably employed by the fast-food chain Burger World.

The daily grind was the subject — and the de facto villain — of Mr. Judge’s first live-action film, “Office Space” (1999), a workplace comedy that riffs on what Marx called the alienation of labor. Its cubicle-drone protagonist (Ron Livingston) is a latter-day Bartleby the Scrivener who redefines the slacker as revolutionary; confronted with the dehumanizing tedium of his software job, he decides to live out his “dream of doing nothing.”

With “Extract,” his latest live-action feature, opening on Friday, Mr. Judge returns to the dynamics of the workplace, but this time the boss is the object of sympathy. Played by Jason Bateman (in quintessential everyguy mode), Joel Reynold is the beleaguered owner of a flavor-extract factory, contending with difficult employees, a looming lawsuit over an assembly-line mishap, a distant wife (Kristen Wiig) and his own adulterous urges.

“Extract,” which Mr. Judge started writing shortly after the release of “Office Space,” was “a conscious decision to tell it from the other side,” he said.

“Here the employees are the bad — well, not really the bad guys but the annoying guys,” he continued.

For “Office Space,” an expansion of the “Milton” animated shorts that appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1990s, Mr. Judge drew on the many day jobs he had held in his 20s, when he wasn’t playing bass in blues-rock bands or teaching himself animation. One temp position he had while a student at the University of California, San Diego, required him to alphabetize purchase orders, the same mind-numbing task he assigned to the Milton character in the movie.

After graduating with a degree in physics, Mr. Judge worked in a series of engineering jobs — testing flight software, developing interfaces for early high-resolution screens — that schooled him in the crushing monotony of cubicle life and the passive-aggressive cadences of corporate speak.

“Extract” comes from a later period in Mr. Judge’s life, when “Beavis and Butt-Head” had become a cultural phenomenon. (It spawned a feature film in 1996.) “I’d never had anyone work for me before,” he said. “And then I had anywhere from 30 to 90 people working for me at any given time. I started to sympathize with my old bosses.”

Despite the shift from a labor to a management perspective Mr. Judge displays his common man’s touch in “Extract.” Joel is a hardworking self-made entrepreneur, and the movie offers a rare glimpse — rare for a contemporary American movie at any rate — into the rhythms of an industrial workplace. Mr. Judge’s ability to inhabit opposing perspectives with empathy and humor is a hallmark of his observational approach; his latest series, “The Goode Family,” gently lampoons do-gooding liberals much as “King of the Hill” fondly ribs compassionate conservatives. (ABC recently announced that it would not be renewing “The Goode Family,” but the show’s producers said they expect it to find a new home soon.)

Like so much else in Mr. Judge’s work, the setting of “Extract” reflects the director’s varied pre-showbiz résumé, which includes a few stints at manufacturing plants, working for a company that made guitar amplifiers and another that packaged snack trays for offices.

“I was always interested in food flavoring,” he said matter-of-factly. (He pointed out that Austin, Tex., where he has lived since the early ’90s, is home to the Adams Extract Company.) “I like watching the Food Network and seeing how they make Twinkies. There’s something about mass-producing food we take for granted.”

A populist at heart, Mr. Judge is also a satirist who often sees right through to the most revealing and most ridiculous aspects of the culture — which makes him something of an anomaly in Hollywood. “Mike’s stuff does connect, but I believe Hollywood can’t comprehend it,” said John Altschuler, a producer of “Extract” and a writer and producer on “The Goode Family” and “King of the Hill.”

Mr. Bateman chalks it up to a difference in tone. Mr. Judge’s work “doesn’t have the volume of the current comedies,” he said, adding that the leisurely pace and modest scale of his films are “often misinterpreted for lack of budget, lack of flash.” In “Extract,” he added, “the anxieties take minutes and multiple scenes to set up as opposed to a big sight gag or one-line joke.”

Whatever the cause Mr. Judge now has a reputation as a cult director whose movies take their time to find an audience, no thanks to the often palpable skittishness or confusion of his distributors. “The funny thing about Mike Judge is everyone always says they like his last project,” Mr. Altschuler said.

“Office Space” just broke even at the domestic box office but became a runaway hit on home video. Mr. Judge’s “Idiocracy” (2006), one of the most notorious casualties of neglect by a major studio, also performed well on DVD. (Its sales and rentals amounted to more than the $8 million budget of “Extract,” Mr. Altschuler said.)

A reductio ad absurdum vision of a dumbed-down 26th-century America, “Idiocracy” was released on a mere 130 screens in only 7 cities (not including New York). On Moviefone it was listed as “Untitled Mike Judge Comedy,” generating conspiracy theories that 20th Century Fox, which also released “Office Space,” was dumping the film because of its anticorporate barbs. (In Mr. Judge’s regressive future dystopia, Starbucks has branched out into the sex trade, Costco sells law degrees, and Fox News anchors are near-naked pro wrestlers.)

Mr. Judge said Fox was initially behind the movie, but after a poor test screening the studio’s “support went away.” Mr. Altschuler was blunter: “That whole fiasco was born of fear and a complete lack of understanding.” (A Fox spokesman said the studio would have expanded to more screens had “Idiocracy” performed well in its limited release.)

To avoid any further clashes with uncomprehending executives, Mr. Judge and Mr. Altschuler, along with Dave Krinsky, another “King of the Hill” veteran, formed their own company and made “Extract” with independently raised funds. Miramax came on board to distribute the film.

Fans of Mr. Judge might note with concern that “Extract,” like “Idiocracy,” is arriving at the start of the Labor Day weekend, one of the quietest times of the year for new releases. But Miramax is opening the film on about 1,600 screens. And the back-to-work season is, of course, a logical fit for the movie and for Mr. Judge, the closest thing to a labor theorist among contemporary funnymen.

In June he delivered the commencement speech at his alma mater, 24 years after he graduated. “The job is a fairly recent concept in human history,” he told the graduating class. He also recounted his meandering path through a several noncareers but concluded that those diversions made him the artist he is. “I kind of was able to find this niche that was about real life,” he said.

Grounded in blue-collar realities, “Extract” suggests an unlikely connection to what is often called the first film ever made, a short by the Lumière brothers from 1895 with the self-explanatory title “Workers Leaving the Factory.” Remarking on the Lumière film and its relative lack of descendants, the filmmaker Harun Farocki wrote, “The first camera in the history of cinema was pointed at a factory, but a century later it can be said that film is hardly drawn to the factory and is even repelled by it.”

Reminded of “Workers Leaving the Factory,” Mr. Judge laughed. “And now it’s come full circle,” he said.

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