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A Mike Judge Mood

by on March 3, 2011
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I vividly remember seeing “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” at the theater. I was about 5 years old. And although the film is a cartoon, I knew it wasn’t exactly “Looney Tunes.” Anxiously sitting in the theater with my older brother, I felt positively giddy, like we had pulled a fast one on our parents. That feeling was confirmed as we were met with grins and winks from the teenagers sitting around us. I could barely contain my excitement when the lights went down and the film began.

What unraveled on the screen was not a bizarre comic world, but one like our own — a world of kids glued to their couches, transfixed by television and the freedom of youth.

Beavis and Butt-Head seemed like slightly older (and, of course, much less intelligent and handsome) versions of me and my brother. In fact, I was so disoriented by the raw reality of the film — the drab settings, the mundane quietness — that we left halfway through to see “Mars Attacks!” instead.

The point is that we had the wrong expectations going into the film. Mike Judge cartoons are not animated in the true sense of the word. They are stodgy rather than wild and lively. Judge uses animation as a means of luring viewers back into the mundane and satirizing the routine of their everyday lives. The crude animation is meant to open our eyes to the monotony.

Many critics, like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, love Judge’s cartoons, but are underwhelmed by his live-action work. “It’s not just the characters’ lives that are stifled — so is Judge’s spontaneity as a filmmaker,” Gleiberman wrote regarding Judge’s most recent film, “Extract.”

Critics like Gleiberman fail to see the vitriol bubbling under the bland surface of Judge’s films. And now is the time when his subtle yet stinging humor should be appreciated. Tell me: Why are similar social satirists like Judd Apatow rising while Judge is rapidly fading away?

Well, I have a theory. Apatow’s characters laugh off the absurdity of the world around them while Judge’s absorb it. Look at Jason Bateman’s character in “Extract” as he breathes in the stench of the dysfunction around him, in and outside his workplace. Perhaps Judge captures the stress of the working Joe a little too accurately for people’s tastes.

Apatow offers viewers a cathartic escape, a chance to shrug off the tedious, sometimes wildly frustrating monotony of life. Judge, on the other hand, forces them to watch the madness unfold. I like that challenge, but that’s just me.

I’ve been revisiting Judge’s work lately (thus the reason I’m writing this column). The nostalgia for his brand of humor hit me like a ton of bricks. So, fans and critics, please don’t let him disappear. He’s far from a no-talent assclown (watch “Office Space” immediately if you don’t get that reference). Judge’s vision of America should be welcome for years to come.