Written by: Ron Bricker
A movie where Sean William Scott, the perennial “dude” and John C. Reilly, the over-the-top comic actor du jour play rivals? Would this be Stifler meets Cox in a boardroom? I had my doubts going into the theater, but I’m happy to say those doubts have been laid to rest. Scott skirts away from type and Reilly returns to dignified vulnerability to turn in the surprisingly satisfying film The Promotion.
Doug Stauber (Scott) is assistant manager at a major grocery store chain. He’s a decent guy who just wants a modest American dream: to achieve enough success to provide for his family and get the respect he deserves after years of hard work, laboring alongside, and reporting to, underachievers. Doug begins to wonder if he’ll ever be able to accomplish much more than that when a window of opportunity opens for him. His chain is about to open a new store, and they’ll need a manager. He’s a shoo-in, he’s told.
Then comes Richard. He’s been transferred to Doug’s store from a sister chain in Canada. He, too, is an assistant manager. Richard is affable, doesn’t swear and has a great rapport with the Pepsi distributor (who it turns out is his 12-step sponsor). He is quickly recognized as a star in the grocery store. Doug, already threatened, realizes his worst nightmare when Richard opts to put in for the same manager position as him.
I anticipated a formula for the rivalry: minor professional sabotage that escalates into nastier corporate backbiting that spirals into a quest for complete personal destruction. Then, once the two men have ruined every valuable relationship, and their original prize is now just a vague memory, they come together over the ash-heap of their former lives to begin anew, as friends, and open a conflict-resolution organization. But something strange happened. Their rivalry did not unfold that way. In fact, every time it looked like a moment might be a springboard into the ridiculous, it played out much the way it would in real life. A physical confrontation ended when the boss broke them up, for instance. The men’s attacks were largely under the radar and within the law. But every moment was just as urgent as it would have been if one were in the middle of some ludicrous scheme. The movie didn’t have to fulfill audience schadenfreude fantasies in order to make us cringe and chortle. Holy shit, I could see myself doing that.
In fact, these men’s lives read like the story of accessible fears and annoyances. They’re compelled to attend an “innovative” work seminar designed to make them the best employees they can be. The seminar leader – Jason Bateman channeling a pre-cynic Michael Bluth – guides them through activities best left at summer camp all while encouraging the team with a one-size-fits-all mantra meant to inspire blind corporate fealty. When completing initial paperwork to buy a house, Doug nervously laughs off the notion put forward by the realtor that guys who try to buy more house than they can afford are “schmucks.” (How many homeowners are laughing nervously, now?) Both men accidentally poorly manage moments in which race, community interest and corporate responsibility intersect. But they only flub because no one is really equipped to manage those situations. We’re left to wipe away flop sweat because we’ve either been there before, or can imagine the easy single misstep it would take to get there.
Doug narrates the movie, with sub-narration provided by Richard’s self-help tapes. A third voice is in the close-ups. Throughout the film, Doug wonders aloud if he’s doing the right thing, if his ethics are still intact; he spots hinges upon which his fate has turned. But even without the narrations, we know Doug and Richard are both men who live with simple dignity, because the camera does all it can to close in on the leads during moments of vulnerability. Their shifting eyes and pursed lips tell us they’re doing all they can to stay respectable, even to themselves. Reilly, who already has a fascinating face, evoked a pathos I couldn’t remember since his “I lost my gun” scene in Magnolia.
The women in this movie were almost incidental. Doug’s wife (Jenna Fischer), a nurse, seemed to exist to serve two purposes: to imply that she’s one of the driving reasons he worked so hard and wanted the promotion; and to be a conduit for her asshole boss, a pediatric surgeon, to emasculate Doug – whose name he can’t recall, though it’s stitched on his shirt – with his tales of medical derring-do. Richard’s wife exists to … um … well, I guess show us that he is lost without the love of a good woman. She’s barely in the film at all and has maybe a total of one page of dialog. This wouldn’t be upsetting if the actress playing his wife were a newcomer. However, it’s Lili Taylor. Giving Lili Taylor 150 total seconds of screen time is akin to placing a burka over a woman with sexy legs. Even the flash of ankle is disappointing because you know what you’re missing. Nonetheless, the friendship these women clearly had with their husbands was endearing.
Though the characters were truly decent people in realistic situations, it wasn’t without its cheap jokes for the 13-year-old boys in the audience. For instance, after a conversation with an employee with Down’s Syndrome, Richard conveys information to Doug that displays his own ignorance. However, the misunderstanding, particularly as it related to a person with Down’s, was simply un-funny. It was obvious that they had built room for a laugh in there, but no one in my audience felt compelled to oblige.
The Promotion is not a flawless comedy, but it is a solid good time. And as importantly, it sticks with you for several days afterward. In today’s economy, a film with a good aftertaste is important: it leaves you feeling like you haven’t wasted your money.