Mike Judge is the chief magistrate of Flyover Land. Sure, other comedy filmmakers can claim to have their fingers on the pulse of lower-middle-class, lower-middlebrow, mainstream Lower Middle America, aka the country that entertainment businesspeople fly over on their way between LA and New York (it used to be called Middle America, but that was before the Great Recession). They may even sell more tickets than Judge. But when it comes to getting under the ballpark-weenie skin of what some movie-biz execs refer to as the Great Unwashed, writer-producer-director-voice talent Judge is, ahem, King of the Hill.
He would have won the honor by acclamation, simply for creating Beavis & Butt-Head, but there was also Office Space, the blithely prophetic Idiocracy, and more TV credits than you can shake a Slurpee at. Judge, who was raised in Albuquerque, has an instinctive feel for the bored, sullen, hypnotized inertia that settles like dust on his tube-watching, multiplex-crowding, mall-customer characters — the hopelessness, too. But he also takes obvious delight in acknowledging their occasional basic, grunt-standard American decency.
By many measures, Joel Reynolds (played by TV lifer Jason Bateman) is a decent guy. As owner of a small factory that produces spray-dried flavoring extracts for commercial food businesses, he takes a kindly, paternalistic interest in his employees, even the dumbest of them. And he nurtures hopes of selling out to General Mills in the near future. However, Joel is distracted by troubles at home. His wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) seems to have lost interest in sex, so he does what any self-respecting businessman would do: he consults the bartender at the local hotel watering hole, a stoner named Dean (Ben Affleck), and considers hitting on one of his workers, a cute newcomer named Cindy (Mila Kunis). Just watch out for industrial accidents.
Cued by hard-luck country music tunes by Johnny Paycheck and Waylon Jennings, the characters form a Sunbelt constellation of slackerdom. Joel is the sort of well-meaning but limited entrepreneur who lavishes considerable thought on the state of his wife's sweatpants — when she puts them on, it means he's locked out for the night — but not much on the production line at the factory. The place seems to run on autopilot. Plant manager Brian (dependably funny J.K. Simmons) doesn't seem to notice that the two women who control the line spend most of their time gossiping, or that Step the line boss (Clifton Collins Jr., the amiable one-armed store clerk in Sunshine Cleaning) has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sexy Cindy could rent herself out as a weapon of mass destruction. Dean the bartender pops pills and hands out bad advice. Step is honest but limited — he and his half-brother are happiest while watching TV and drinking Pepsi. Brad the "pool guy" (Dustin Milligan) frankly lacks the killer instinct of a successful sex worker. The huge, sinister-looking black rug atop shyster-lawyer Joe Adler's (Gene Simmons) head could swallow the Reynolds Extract factory. Local lowlife Willie (Matt Schulze) loves his bong a little too much. Joel's wandering wife Suzie is content as long as he keeps paying the bills. Meanwhile, there's Nathan (hilarious David Koechner) the neighbor, who can seemingly drone on for hours at a stretch and who always seems to be lurking outside Joel's home, waiting to strike.
Judge probably wrote Extract on the back of a pizza box, but it's funnier and truer to life as it is actually lived than anything Judd Apatow ever did. It has a workaday knowledge of the way ordinary, small-town people cheat, drink, steal, commiserate, and pester each other, and shares its research generously. A month from now we'll already have forgotten it, but this week there isn't a better movie to sneak out of work to see. Just tell the boss you're going to the doctor. Extra butter on the Orville's.
Hirokazu Kore-eda lacks Mike Judge's taste for the tenderloin, but he works more or less the same neighborhood in a sober, Japanese way. In such dramas as Maborosi, After Life, and the heartbreaking Nobody Knows, the 47-year-old Tokyo native has specialized in charting the disappointments and tragedies of Japan's middle class. Kore-eda's scenarios have always tended toward quiet yet troubling contemplation, but Still Walking is probably his most subdued yet, with unmistakable echoes of the great Yasujiro Ozu.
As in Ozu's finely grained social dramas, Still Walking studies a seemingly typical family to see what makes it tick. Thwarted expectations and unrealized hopes are the order of the day, as the adult son and daughter of a doctor and his wife gather one summer weekend with their respective families at the doctor's home in a small town near Yokohama to commemorate the eldest son, who died rescuing a boy from drowning fifteen years earlier.
The stern, patriarchal old doctor (Yoshio Harada) and his industrious wife (Kirin Kiki) are the family's immovable objects. Granddad has retired from practice, but stubbornly refuses to go food shopping for his wife because in his mind, to be seen carrying groceries would invite disrespect. Chatty daughter Chinami (played by You, the neglectful mother from Nobody Knows) is already there with her husband and two young kids when her brother Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) arrives with his wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and her son from a previous marriage. The kids immediately begin playing together — the adults, not so.
Ryota is doubly anxious about the visit. He not only harbors a deep resentment at the way his parents continue to grieve over his older brother, the family favorite before he suddenly died, but Ryota is currently between jobs and feels a little inadequate. It seems he has to compete with his deceased brother forever. There's also the issue of the old folks' attitude toward Yukari and her son. They treat her as an outsider, partly because they think she's a divorcee. She's really a widow, but grandma mustn't find that out — it's bad luck to marry a widow.
Despite these potential storm clouds, as the sultry weekend passes the family bonds naturally, in short, subdued scenes. The old doctor notices that his step-grandson takes an interest in medicine, and encourages him. If we were impatient, we might characterize Still Walking as the sort of film a middle-aged director would make, self-consciously using family life to tell a universal story about aging. That's essentially the concept here. But we catch subtle, fleeting glimpses of human emotion in the hot summer air, as when grandma puts on "Blue Light Yokohama," a record with a secret meaning. The secret meaning is: Time never stops passing.
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