Even when he’s making a live-action movie, writer-director Mike Judge makes cartoons.

And why not? From "Beavis and Butt-Head" to "King of the Hill," Judge has been amazingly successful at it.

If only we could say the same for the live-action "Extract."

In some ways, Judge’s latest proves far too cartoonish. In other ways, it’s not cartoonish enough.

Either way, it falls short of the standard Judge set with his decade-old cult favorite "Office Space."

Maybe it’s because "Extract" focuses on the boss in the office rather than the worker bees on the production line.

Or maybe it’s because Judge never quite figures out how to focus his comedic energies.

Instead, "Extract" veers off in a dozen different directions — some of them more amusing than others.

But by spinning in circles, the movie never achieves the comedic momentum — or the satirical punch — that mark other Judge projects, including 2006’s little-seen "Idiocracy," in which an Average Joe wakes up, 500 years hence, to discover he’s become an intellectual giant in the dumbed-down society of the future.

Well, at least "Extract" gets the dumbed-down part right.

We’re somewhere in Southern California, where Joel (a nicely hapless Jason Bateman) presides over a factory churning out flavored extracts.

The factory floor teems with the usual amusing (stereo)types, from good ol’ boy Step (goofily earnest Clifton Collins Jr.) to self-righteous Mary (an appropriately grating Beth Grant), who’s too busy complaining about her co-workers to realize she’s guilty of the same objectionable behavior. And Joel’s second-in-command Brian (the always welcome J.K. Simmons) can’t even remember their names.

Except, of course, for Cindy (a sly Mila Kunis), the new temp who’s so smokin’ hot she immediately inspires lustful, adulterous thoughts in Joel — which is utterly understandable considering the fact that Joel and his wife, Suzie (a deadpan Kristen Wiig), haven’t done more than bicker for months.

But scheming Cindy’s got her eye on someone else: stumbling Step, who’s just suffered a particularly humiliating injury in a freak factory accident, making him the likely recipient of a big-bucks insurance payoff. That is, unless Step decides to follow Cindy’s advice and sue Joel’s company, possibly bankrupting it in the process.

Meanwhile, back in the yupscale neighborhood Joel and Suzie call home, obnoxious Nathan (David Koechner, expertly working his hearty boorishness) pops up with dismaying regularity to distract and annoy them.

No wonder Joel seeks refuge at a nearby watering hole, where his laid-back pal Dean (a benign, bewigged Ben Affleck) tends bar, dispenses random pharmaceuticals and serves up off-the-wall advice. Sample brainstorm: have Joel hire a dim-bulb hunk (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie so Joel can cheat on her with a clear conscience.

And so it goes, as "Extract" piles up the improbabilities and bounces randomly from one plot line to another.

Some comedies can get away with that sort of thing — usually by keeping the jokes flying fast and furious so the duds aren’t so obvious. But Judge employs such a lackadaisical approach there’s more than enough time to dwell on the multiple misfires.

Moreover, Judge seems reluctant to go for the kind of outrageous humor that might save "Extract" from its bland lack of focus.

A few scenes manage to strike genuinely subversive sparks. (Wiig’s Suzie berating Koechner’s oblivious motormouth Nathan is one of them.)

A few other sequences showcase Bateman’s subtle but sure-fire comic timing, as when he joins what’s supposed to be a mellow pot-smoking session. Naturally, things blow up in his face — and I don’t mean smoke.

Throughout, "Extract" works hard to keep its plates spinning, but can’t be bothered to devote much effort to creating characters worth caring about.

That also makes it tough to laugh at them. To say nothing of laughing with them.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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