The mass of men, wrote Henry David Thoreau, lead lives of quiet desperation. You could debate whether that statement is still true or maybe more true in the age of cozy fat armchairs and giant-screen TVs. But it's certainly true this year in one breed of late-summer movie: the masochistic comedy of everyday jerkdom, in which we behold the flailing of losers who are really us. Extract and Big Fan both feature small-fry heroes who don't act so much as they get acted upon. True, neither one of these men is particularly quiet. But that hardly makes them any less desperate.
Couldn't Mike Judge, with his acid wit, have come up with a better title for a suburban-schlub comedy than Extract? The title refers to the company owned by Joel (Jason Bateman), who bottles ''natural'' food sweetener on a mini-factory assembly line that he's on the verge of selling to General Mills. The plan gets squashed when one of his workers (Clifton Collins Jr.) loses a testicle in a freak industrial accident. The worker decides to sue, mostly at the prompting of Cindy (Mila Kunis), a sociopathic hottie. The weirdest thing about Extract is that the small-business chicanery isn't even Joel's main problem. That would be his wife (Kristen Wiig), who draws her sweatpants tight with chastity-belt precision. Joel plans to relieve his sexual frustration by sleeping with Cindy, but he must first absolve his guilt by hiring a dumb gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife, a plan that ends up working a little too well.
I love Mike Judge's cartoons (King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head), and Idiocracy (2006), his unfairly dumped future-shock satire, had flashes of demented brilliance. But didn't Judge realize that Extract, with its plastic setups and one-dimensional harpies, plays like Kevin Smith remaking a bad George Segal comedy from 1978? There are a handful of fun moments. Judge has Joel take one of the longest bong hits in movie history, and he casts Ben Affleck, in terrifying hair, as a pill-popping medicine chest of a bartender. (Affleck is the one actor on screen who looks like he's having fun.) But there's something didactic, overly programmed, about the middle-class misery of Extract. It's not just the characters' lives that are stifled so is Judge's spontaneity as a filmmaker.
Big Fan, the first movie directed as well as written by Robert Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler), stars Patton Oswalt as a 35-year-old Staten Island parking-garage attendant who has no life apart from his fervid devotion to the New York Giants. The movie is an unblinking look at the hidden (or perhaps not so hidden) pathology of American sports mania, in which the power and victory of your team becomes the sole conduit for your self-worth.
Oswalt's Paul sits in his parking booth, then arrives back at the house he shares with his mother to call the Sports Dog radio phone-in show. There, he spouts the ''spontaneous'' Go Giants! Eagles suck! rant he has already scrawled on a legal pad. Oswalt, looking like a mild, dwarfish Michael Moore, makes Paul an unnervingly rational nut, a spokesman for the ''wholesome'' addiction our all-sports-all-the-time culture has become. After Paul spots the Giants' superstar linebacker, he tails him to a strip club and ends up getting beaten up by his idol an event that you'd think would leave him furious. But it only heightens the cultishness of his worship; Paul, it turns out, loves the Giants more than he loves himself. Big Fan, while it holds us right up to the suspenseful simmer of its nerd–Taxi Driver climax, doesn't go where you'd expect. That's what makes Siegel, more than Judge, a born filmmaker. A-