Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Film Snob Focus: Mike Judge

He's the hero of the Everyman; the Sultan of Satire. Over the past 20 years, Mike Judge has delivered some of pop culture's most revered, and smartest, social satires. This weekend, his latest, "Extract" opens in theaters. Although reviews are only lukewarm, a look at Judge's career suggests that even if it's not his best, there will still be several gems of social commentary that define the rest of his work to date.

"Beavis and Butt-head", 1993-1997 (MTV). I didn't have cable growing up, and even if I did, I'm certain my parents wouldn't have approved of the series that was a lightning rod for outraged parents and a generation of imitators too stupid to realize they were being ridiculed. I can't claim to be terribly familiar with the series, having only recently seen a few episodes, but what I have seen is at once painfully stupid while at the same time painfully satirical. The title characters are unbearably moronic, and those they encounter, though not nearly as annoying, are equally ignorant. Although it didn't get started until "Beavis and Butt-Head" was nearing the end of its run, the series is reminiscent of mob scenes from "South Park", which of course owe a lot to the precursor to both series, "The Simpsons". As one critic said, according to Wikipedia, the series reduced itself to "self-parody of their self-parody". The overall theme that continues to come to mind for this series is perhaps best summarized as one of my favorite posters from, on the issue of meetings: "None of us is as dumb as all of us." The occasional copycat incidents unfortunately proved the series' underlying moral - willful ignorance is dangerous.

"King of the Hill" (1997-2009): Certainly the most mellow of all the Sunday night Fox animated comedies, "King of the Hill" nonetheless earns major points for being almost Seinfeldian in its explorations of the trappings of day-to-day life. Hank Hill is generally confronted with either his wife, son, or niece looking to explore or express themselves in ways that make him uncomfortable, such as his son taking a fancy to dancing with the family dog, or his wife becoming a foot model. Occasionally his oddball neighbors take the center stage, and it is ultimately up to Hank to overcome his misgivings and save the day as only a propane salesman could. Perhaps one of my favorite episodes is when Hank's beloved truck is on its last legs, and he says he's willing to only drive it 10 miles a year to get 20 more years out of it [I'm pretty sure I got that slightly wrong, let me know what it actually is in the comments]. Hank embodies the no-bull common sense and decency that we all aspire to, the occasional gullibility and stubbornness we are all prone to, and the moronic ineptitude we all inevitably succumb to.

"Office Space" (1999): Not much can be said about the cult smash hit that nails the repetition, boredom, and general insanity of cubicle life. If you haven't had the viewing pleasure, a fantastic sampling is the opening credits where our hero simply tries to get to work.

I remember first seeing this movie in early 2002 (to date myself, still in high school) and thinking it was just a really funny movie. Five years later, being a year out of college and in a job about as invigorating as working computer code at Initech, "Office Space" had a much deeper and depressing effect on my still relatively young psyche. The characters were no longer caricatures. They were my coworkers and my bosses. I had unwittingly become Peter Gibbons, stuck in a pointless job I couldn't stand. His rebellion was cathartic, if not downright heroic. Past generations had Odysseus, George Washington, and Joe DiMaggio. The hero of Generation Me is the guy that beat the hell out of the printer that always jammed, and he, like the Dark Knight, was the hero we needed, and the hero we hopefully deserved.

"Idiocracy" (2006): One of the three smartest satires* of the Bush administration was tragically dead-on-arrival: the culprit - Mike Judge's home for a decade, and the film's financier and distributor, 20th Century Fox. "Idiocracy" imagines Luke Wilson as the world's most average man who, through a mistake in a military hibernation experiment, wakes up 500 years later, and due to rampant commercialization and dysgenic reproduction by society's lowest rungs, is now the smartest man on the planet. Perhaps worried that the tale took too accurate a swing at the entertainment industry's most profitable demographic (people that paid money to see Transformers 2), Fox didn't advertise the film and released it to less than 200 screens nationwide. The film is biting, and although it loses a little steam towards the end, funny throughout, thanks to a perfectly-casted Wilson, SNL alum Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, and a hysterical Terry Crews as President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. Again, the phrase "none of us is as dumb as all of us" comes to mind throughout the film's duration. Most strikingly, though, is how frightening it is, as a show titled "Ow! My Balls!" being the most popular on television doesn't seem so far-fetched.

"Extract" (2009): I have yet to see Judge's most recent film, although I did have a chance to read it when it was being shopped around LA in 2006 following Fox taking a pass. What I read was basically "Office Space" with a midlife crisis, with Judge's typical observational satire. The film's cast consists of the capable Jason Bateman, SNL's Kristen Wiig, Spiderman's JK Simmons, Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Mila Kunis, and Ben Affleck in a role that looks as though it could be the career rebooter he was hoping Hollywoodland would be. Early reviews are only lukewarm, but for my money, I'd rather see a decent Mike Judge satire than any of the more standard offerings of which he seems so rightfully fearful.

*Wall-E and In The Loop being the other two (yes, I think In The Loop counts as Bush-era). Did I forget any?

Ed. note: After I drafted this column Wednesday night, an interview with Mike Judge and a pretty positive review of Extract popped up at The Onion's superlative AV Club. Please believe me, I'm not that shameless a plagiarizer.

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